Three things you may not know about anxiety

After being in a tense or anxious situation, you may have have thought, “Why did I say or do that?” or “Why do I get so tongue tied?" It's only afterwards, when you are feeling calmer, you are able to think of the things you could have said or done instead.

The reason this happens is because when we are anxious, we move into survival mode. When we feel under threat, our reactions speed up, and our ability to reason gets bypassed.

When we are in survival mode, we can only do something we already know how to do. 

There are five basic patterns our anxious brain can choose from, and you are probably already familiar with the first two:

  • Fight – If we feel more powerful than whoever is threatening us we may choose to fight. Most of the time people fight verbally rather than physically.

  • Flight – We only tend to run away from a threat if we also see other people running. When we lived as hunter-gatherers, a lone human was very vulnerable, so we were much safer sticking together. We still have this evolutionary pattern, and we will often stay in situations which are risky and dangerous, and use other strategies instead. Rather than flight we tend to use avoidance, so we will try to stay away from people or things we know are threatening.

The other three which may not be so familiar are:

  • Friend – By becoming compliant and passive we hope whoever is threatening us will not attack or harm us. We might apologise profusely even if we're not in the wrong, or find that we behave in ways we wouldn't normally.

  • Freeze – In freeze we are hoping that by remaining completely still and silent, the aggressor will not notice us and pass us by. In freeze your body will go rigid; you may also hold your breath; you will find it difficult to speak; and you may find your mind also goes blank.

  • Flop – In flop we will lose all muscle tone. We hope that by 'playing dead' we will be left alone. Flop is typically our last line of defence.

Counselling can help you cope better in anxious situations through:

  • Keeping calm - Exploring strategies to help keep you more calm when going into an anxious situation. A simple breathing technique you can use yourself is to breathe all the way out - pause - breath in - pause, counting in cycles of three.

  • Slowing down - Looking at how to slow down, which allows you more time to process what you are about to say or do. People often naturally put pauses into their speech “Uh...”, “Um...”, “Well...”, a process known as a filled pause, and you may already do things like this yourself.

  • Practice - Practicing how you may react or what to say beforehand. Fire drills work because people practise a pattern of behaviour, which they will automatically follow in a panicky situation such as a real fire. By practising what you want to say beforehand will make it more likely your anxious brain will be able to choose this pattern in the real situation.

  • Self-compassion - Exploring ways of being kind to yourself. Going into an anxious situation with the thought “I always clam up, when I am put on the spot!” can increase your anxiety and so make it more likely you will clam up.

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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Eastleigh, Hampshire, SO50
Written by Mark Redwood, BA (Hons) Counselling
Eastleigh, Hampshire, SO50

I am a humanistic counsellor, which means I believe we are born with the potential to lead full and rewarding lives. Sometimes, we can get stuck and need some help to get going again. I have a BA (hons) in counselling. My experience includes working with young people, bereavement, anxiety, depression, and anger.

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