The anxiety trap
Anxiety is much more than what goes on in your head. You may find this difficult to believe. You may not always be aware of it, but the symptoms of anxiety are much more than racing thoughts, endless screenplays or excessive worrying. They are more than obsessive thoughts or a preoccupation with worst-case scenarios.
You may convince yourself something terrible is about to happen and magnify the sense of drama, but distressing thoughts are not always the source of your problem. Nor are thoughts the cause of why you feel so unsafe. People often say: I’m a worrier; I’m shy; I lack confidence; I avoid confrontation; I find it hard to stand up for myself, or I’m no good in social situations. What they really mean is – I’m anxious.
Anxiety is a type of fear. It may not be fear of anything tangible, like a bear or a man with a club, but it feels real. Sometimes so real, it’s almost overwhelming. It causes real distress. And it should not be trivialised or underestimated.
Anxiety is fear of the unknown, a fear of change, or fear of future events that haven’t happened yet. Think of all those worst-case scenarios you imagined that never materialised, but ruined your weekend anyway. And there was nothing you could do about it.
For that reason, anxiety is a trap. A trap you can’t get out of. You can’t stop and you haven’t got any control over it. It just keeps on snaring you in its grip, swallowing everything up in its path – your joy, happiness, confidence, self-esteem, and your peace of mind.
You may have a constant feeling of dread for no reason. Fear of being alone, or unable to cope. You may fear not living a normal life; yet are unable to make it stop. And it isn’t easy letting go, once anxiety has a grip on you. You may suffer from cold sweats, sleepless nights, anticipating the worst, worrying about the future, avoiding social contact and feeling self-conscious about what people think of you.
What’s really happening?
Firstly, you need to realise – it’s not all in your head. Thoughts alone don’t cause anxiety, and thoughts alone can’t help you find a solution. You can’t think yourself out of anxiety with logic or reason. Rationalising, problem-solving, analysing or over-thinking your problems are more likely to raise your stress levels than bring you any relief.
And even when you think you’ve found a solution, you don’t always feel relieved. You may try to second guess yourself, or cover all your bases (and I mean all of them). Or endlessly feel compelled to take safety precautions and rituals that don’t seem rational. Just superstitious, or paranoid.
Anxiety is triggered by an oversensitive amygdala in your brain which is responding to sensory stimuli in your body. Your body uses its five senses to detect these sensory stimuli and your amygdala identifies whether they are a threat or not. If they are, your brain sends a signal to the body, which floods it with stress hormones, putting it into a state of high alert.
For people who have learned to live with anxiety, and normalise it, this often happens at an unconscious level of awareness. Without realising it, stress hormones like cortisol, adrenalin and nor-adrenalin are accumulating in your body, triggering a fight, flight or freeze response. This is followed by a cascade of intense emotions, mood swings and distressing thoughts. But because there’s often no clear and present danger, the stress hormones can’t be discharged. They remain trapped in the body as you freeze. If this happens too frequently, these hormones are produced whenever you feel stressed or sense danger, even when there aren’t any obvious signs.
If you pause long enough to assess the situation, breathe and ground yourself, these feelings may pass without note. But if you find it difficult to self-regulate your emotions, or you ignore stress until it is too late, then you’re much more likely to experience chronic anxiety. When you finally become aware of the physical symptoms, you’re likely to fixate on them and feel sensitive to the slightest sign of threat, as if you’d developed an internal radar for it.
Anxiety is a survival response in the body and brain
The truth is your survival brain is wired to process these sensations first and respond to threat stimuli, long before you’re conscious of what’s happening in your head. And long before you start worrying or thinking about what to do next. This interaction between body sensations and the brain is triggered by your instincts without you even knowing it.
If your sensations tell you there’s something wrong, then your amygdala will pay attention to it, whether there’s an obvious threat or not. You have no choice. Your survival instincts kick in and alert you to a problem that may not even be visible.
It may be that you’re responding to your sensory memories or reminders of distressing events. It may be that you are simply over-worked, tired, hungry, dehydrated, or under-breathing and your stress levels have simply accumulated over time, without being discharged. It may be that you lead a sedentary lifestyle, without much movement or exercise, which is another kind of stress. Even too much decision-making, rushing around or craving intense sensation, can cause anxiety. All these physiological sensations in the body, kick your anxiety into gear, but if you learn to ignore the signs then they can remain buried in your subconscious, waiting to detonate.
It’s only when you become conscious of the symptoms that you start searching for the source of your fears. The conscious mind may want to believe that fear is only connected to real events, situations and people. But the truth is, the source of your anxiety is often hidden from you.
You feel it. You wrack your brains, you screenplay events and interactions with others, searching for a clue, but nothing seems to make sense. Over time, this anxiety-response may trigger panic attacks, feelings of being disembodied or frozen with fear. And when there isn’t any obvious source for it, this only makes things worse. By now, you feel convinced you must be mad. “No one else feels this way, or thinks this way” – you tell yourself.
But it isn’t true. We all do.
We have all felt a disproportionate sense of anxiety at some point, without any reason for it. Other than the reasons we go on to invent in our mind’s eye, in our head.
Anxiety in the prefrontal cortex
This is where the prefrontal cortex in the brain takes over. When the amygdala communicates with the hippocampus (our memory centre) and the prefrontal cortex (our analysing, problem-solving and interpreting centre) it is trying to make sense of the stress stimuli and find a solution to relieve you of anxiety. If not the prefrontal cortex carries on processing and going into overdrive: thinking, tracking, analysing data, problem-solving and searching for a solution.
But when the prefrontal cortex becomes hyper-aroused, you carry on worrying, wracking your nerves, screen-playing events, searching for an answer. If you ignore the sensations in your body, in favour of your thoughts – trying to think your way out of a problem – you will not discharge the stress hormones triggered by the fight-flight-or-freeze response. You will be hijacked by your anxious thoughts and remain trapped in your anxiety.
And when the amygdala is overloaded with intense sensory-stress-stimuli over a long period of time, it converts these messages into distress signals and traumatic memories. This means the brain becomes overly sensitive to other associated sensory stimuli.
When these memories and interpretation centres are reactivated by reminders of a traumatic or distressing event; the brain may receive a sensory cue, but not have a story for it or a narrative memory for what happened. It is blind to the source of the anxiety: it senses but does not see a story for it. In this case, the prefrontal cortex goes into overdrive: a state of hyper-arousal. This is when you become most conscious of it.
And if this cannot be discharged naturally by self-regulating your emotions, your brain may even cope by going into a dissociative state. This is when you shut down, become detached and withdrawn, or begin feeling disembodied.
Counselling for anxiety
Counselling with a therapist can help you learn how to understand your anxiety. Counselling can help identify the triggers and learn to observe how they work. With an experienced counsellor, you can also learn how to discharge stress, self-regulate your emotions and create safety routines such as mindfulness of breathing or grounding techniques. These exercises will not eradicate anxiety overnight, but they can significantly change your experience of anxiety for the better. If you suffer from anxiety, do not suffer in silence. Take the opportunity to reach out. It will take time, but you will usually notice some difference relatively quickly in your enduring mind.