When anxiety bites
There are any number of articles about anxiety and how to manage it. And no wonder: all of us can feel anxious from time to time when faced with challenging situations. Anxiety can be a ghastly emotion generating hugely unpleasant physical sensations. It might even, long term, have real implications regarding physical health. It can interfere with daily life to where it can be overwhelming, to where being able to function is hampered, to where we just want it to stop. It can even descend into a panic attack… and “hamster brain”, a sense that your mind is whirring with unwanted, intrusive thoughts and images like a hamster on its wheel, at 3 in the morning can be a draining, exhausting experience especially if it is repeated night after night.
Anxiety can be a response to how we perceive ourselves in the face of a threat or challenge, real or imaginary. Our bodies can respond to these threats or challenges with some pretty potent biochemical secretions. These can produce easily identifiable and possibly very familiar physical sensations - quickened heartbeat and breathing (often shallower than usual), nausea, feeling faint, feeling hot or cold. This response is unpleasant and at the same time it can be useful should the threat or challenge be a real one - galvanising a healthy reaction in the creation of potential solutions, metaphorically (or literally) fleeing or fighting. Alternatively, it can prompt us to freeze, to unconsciously defend against an unbearable trigger by deadening our response.
Sometimes it is possible to become stuck in this loop, where both the emotion of anxiety and its accompanying visceral physical response are triggered against a threat or challenge that doesn’t yet, and might not ever, exist: that “what if”. Our psyches learn from past experiences and should these have included trauma (such as loss, bereavement, abuse, or neglect), the lesson taken can influence the present so that anxiety can become almost a default setting. It could be experienced like a baseline to everyday living - a really uncomfortable state where hypervigilance feels like the glue holding everything together. It can feel rather like trying to drive a car whilst feeling as though the wheels are certain to fall off at any moment, catering for a potential disaster that if we were to stand next to it and have a good look, we might say is truly unlikely. And yet there is the sense of vulnerability and anxiety at the steering wheel, making that drive a misery.
Hand in hand with vulnerability and anxiety might be the accompanying sensation of shame. In a way, vulnerability could march together with shame. For example when there might be expectations of needing to be “strong” and fearing that one just isn’t strong enough… It could be that there is a sense of shame around an expectation of needing to perform to a certain standard and anticipating falling short. What might that mean? And how to go through life whilst encountering and dreading these challenging bars to jump over? Perhaps anxiously?
Whist anxiety can be a straightforward response to a single experience in the here and now, it can also be nuanced and layered and interwoven with past experience and personal history. It can be a useful prompt to awareness and action around a current set of circumstances and it can also be an indication that perhaps something more might be going on. Exploring that “something more” in a compassionate, non-judgemental therapeutic setting might be of real value in taming the hamster in that mental wheel.