So what exactly is anxiety?

We hear people say "I’m stressed", "that’s getting on my nerves" or “he’s had a nervous breakdown”. We may use the term "stressed", "I can't cope", "I'm tied up in knots" or "my stomach is churning", for example.

Anxiety is a modern word for ‘nerves’!

Those feelings of dread, irritability, restlessness, angst, sleepless nights, running to the loo frequently when out of sorts or waiting for a driving test or exam to start this is down to our 'nerves'.   

Our body contains many nerves running from our head to feet. Our nervous system is made up of our brain, spinal cord, our sensory organs i.e. our visual, auditory, touch, taste, smell, balance and movement systems. All these systems work like a transmitter since we are 'plugged in' collecting information from the world outside our self, interpreting it in our inner world; this is how our unique perceptions are built.  

When our transmitters get full, our filters get overloaded much like the oil filter in a car or the tumble dry filter catching all the fluff off the clothes every now and again; we need to clear the filters for the machines to work effectively. We’re pretty much the same when our filters get covered over or clogged up with too much information, we don’t see as clearly as before and we begin to feel anxious or on edge and subconsciously, we begin to interpret some of the information we're receiving as dangerous or threatening to our well-being where before it wasn't. This creates an anxiety state!

A bit like a piece of electrical equipment, if the electricity voltage gets too high it burns some of the connectors or smokes a bit when in use; when it ceases to work properly, we are in danger of getting an electric shock from the appliance or it just stops working all together.

As human beings in the caveman era we had to physically run to catch our food, whilst at the same time be on high alert so we didn't get eaten from large predators. Our senses alert for any threat to our safety; if we were confronted by a dinosaur then our body would react to the stimulus (dinosaur), the information would travel through our nervous system and fill all our muscles with the energy to outrun the dinosaur. 

Information received and interpreted from our sensory systems hits our brain, which acts accordingly to keep us safe. If the signal is deemed safe, we work effectively, relax, sleep well and feel calm, but if it is perceived as dangerous, our brain via our spinal cord and nervous system sends signals to another bodily system called the endocrine system, which activates the two glands sat on top of our kidneys known as adrenal glands.

Once the information ‘danger’ has reached the adrenal glands, they respond by pumping out a chemical called adrenaline, this chemical gives us extra energy so we can run away from the threat. Once we escape the threat, run off all the excess adrenaline, danger past, our systems return to normal the excess adrenaline used up.

The human body hasn't change in this respect, it operates in the same way a caveman or woman did, only these days we do not encounter dinosaurs or have to run away to save our own life on a daily basis or to catch our food. Human beings are at the top of the food chain, we are now the hunters rather than the hunted, so we simply visit a supermarket and lift the food from the shelf, its all done for us. 

Our survival systems however work exactly in the same way, as if there is a dinosaur about to eat us!

Today our predators have a different face for example if a loved one dies, our relationship isn't going how we imagined it to be or we are so busy at work to 'chill out' when we get home and our mind is still working when we climb into bed or we've arrived into adulthood from a neglected or abusive childhood. All these things stimulate our nervous systems, which interprets some of it as threatening to our personal safety. It might even be a forthcoming exam, a job interview, visiting the doctor or the dentist, to having been involved in a life changing accident, experiencing a domestic violent relationship, being bullied or becoming ill  Even things like being overtired, overeating, consuming excess alcohol or any life difficulties we are struggling to deal with, can release excess adrenaline which isn't used up in our daily living. 

Once excess adrenaline has been released, if it is not used to ‘save our self’, it remains in the body traveling around all our bodily systems. It can affect our body in many ways and we may experience some of the following:

Physical affects:

  • palpitations
  • tight chest
  • breathlessness
  • tight band of pain on top of head
  • dizziness
  • sleeplessness
  • tension at the bridge of nose
  • tiredness/Fatigue
  • hot flushes 

Psychological symptoms:

  • sense of dread
  • feelings of impending doom
  • irritable/restless
  • difficulty concentrating
  • on edge
  • thoughts filling our head
  • feeling numb

There are many more effects of adrenaline release when our adrenal glands get over sensitised. It doesn’t take much to set the adrenaline release to top up our feelings of anguish and fear and this can tip us over into a panic attack, phobia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and for some, a complete breakdown of their nervous system and we can think and feel like we are going to die. 

However, be reassured it is very rare that anyone dies of having a panic attack or nervous breakdown, if ever, it just ‘feels' that way at the time. 

Some people can experience suicidal thoughts and/or complete suicide if the bodily systems are left and not calmed. If you are feeling suicidal or experiencing such thoughts, it is important to seek support immediate from someone you trust and visit your GP and/or go to your nearest A&E department if feelings/thoughts are intense and you feel you may act upon them. 

Any heightened anxiety state can be dissolved; not by magic, nobody has a magic wand, but in time through effort, understanding and insight and putting the insight into practice through your behaviour makes all the difference. It's perhaps that you haven't learnt the skills to calm your excess adrenalin and this is where psychoeducation through counselling comes into it's own, so you can become the master of your emotions so they don't dictate to you!

Anxiety and the release of adrenalin has a purpose to protect you and keep you alert to any danger to life or limb; it is a natural occurrence and therefore cannot be eradicated. But the good news is it can be managed and used to enhance living rather than inhibit it by overprotecting you, keeping you in a state of high alert with adrenaline rushing through your body.

Once our adrenal system is over sensitised for a long time, it can lower our immune system which makes us more susceptible to getting other illness such as frequent colds, anemia or fatigue and this may become a vicious circle we can't get off. People may say to you "get a grip" or "get over it" if something is upsetting or you were traumatised and your nervous system is on high alert.

 Anxiety causes disorders:

  • GAD
  • OCD
  • complex post traumatic disorder (CPTSD)
  • post-traumatic disorder (PTD)
  • panic disorder
  • social phobia
  • phobia of specific things like spiders, going to the dentist or fear of flying

When this happens, we may find we are stuck in a pattern of symptoms not knowing what to do to get out of them, this can add more stress, anxiety and fear that we are losing our self. 

The adrenaline release is there to serve a purpose, which is to keep us alive and to outrun any threats, which is why many therapists suggest you take up some form of physical exercise to use it.

 Other techniques which might help are:

  • breathing exercise
  • learning to relax
  • mindful awareness
  • meditation
  • good sleep hygiene
  • manage intrusive/obsessive thoughts
  • change negative/recurrent thoughts
  • psychoeducation

There are many coping strategies and techniques which can help you understand your unique pattern of anxiety and how it impacts upon you. Counselling can help you when you don’t know what to do and can help you to learn new ways of managing your emotions

Engaging with an experienced, non-judgmental counsellor in a safe place will be very helpful and supportive for you, helping you to cope, understand and begin to master your emotions so they don’t master you.

Counselling can help you explore any patterns of anxiety and identify the way thoughts interact with feelings and how feelings and thoughts impacts upon behaviour and the cycle which holds you in the ‘over protection mode’.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Doncaster, South Yorkshire, DN4
Written by Susan Stubbings, CPCAB Coun.Adv Dip+Supervision Adv L6 Cert. MBACP (Accred)
Doncaster, South Yorkshire, DN4

Known as Sue I work as a BACP registered counselling therapist in and around Doncaster, South Yorkshire.

Experienced practitioner advocating for emotional mastery, connection and personal peace.

Passionate about empowering people to recover, repair, rejuvenate, build resiliency, maintain healthy emotional, psychological, spiritual inner worlds.

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