Anxiety is a normal, albeit not so pleasant part of life, and it does affect all of us in different ways and at different times in our lives.
Stress is something that we also all experience, but unlike Anxiety, stress will come and go as the external triggers creating the stress change. Anxiety is much more persistent and oftentimes feels pervasive; it feels crippling in all areas of our lives and soon can feel like we can’t remember the time we weren’t feeling this way.
Anxiety can make you imagine that things in your life are much worse than how they really are. Often you will think you’re going mad, or that something is very wrong with you. The feelings that arise can feel terrifying and they can increase the anxiety. It is important to remind yourself that your feelings are scary, but normal and that they are there as a physiological survival function that has existed in earliest man.
The symptoms you feel are a sort of ‘internal alarm system’ designed to protect you from the dangers surrounding you that had you lived at the same time as earliest man, you would have needed these hyper-vigilant responses to stay alive. The same ‘alarm system’ works in the same way today; only there is very often no real danger present. Our alarm system has become over sensitive to perceived danger and it can feel very frightening.
The alarm system makes you feel hyper-alert by giving you a massive boost of adrenaline and other stress hormones and chemical messengers that increase the heart rate and the amount of oxygen going to our limbs to enable you to be better able to fight or flee from the perceived danger. The rapid shallow hyper-ventilating breathing that feels completely out-of-your-control; that’s there to oxygenate your limbs, get you moving away from the danger fast, or, fuel you to fight hard. All these bodily felt responses you feel happening is being triggered by the lowest part of your brain, your Amygdala triggering this “fight or flight or freeze (and in extreme cases ‘flop’) response.
You may feel yourself becoming anxious as the body prepares it’s primal systems to start to respond and triggers the alarm system, you may feel the initial sensations as “butterflies in the stomach” , tingling, a tightness, or sense that all is not well, these are all sensations that many associate with anxiety.
Some people have an identifiable cause for their anxiety; a traumatic incident, lots of compounding stressors or they may have undergone a significant life event (moving house, getting divorced, receiving a medical diagnosis or having surgery, a new baby, to name a few). However, for many there simply isn’t an identifiable cause for their anxiety and it causes them even more distress as the cause remains unknown.
One way of thinking about your anxiety is to imagine your stress levels as being like a bath full of water. If we keep adding water (stressors) to the bath it will overflow, it will flood the bathroom. It is then that we have reached our tripping point. That is why when you come to see me for anxiety we spend time talking about self-care, and identifying the stressors that overfill the bath and have the potential to flood the bathroom.
You may experience physical, psychological, emotional and behavioural symptoms when you feel anxious, some of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety are: increased heart rate, increased muscle tension, tingling in the hands and feet, hyperventilation (an excess of intake of oxygen as a result of rapid short breaths in), dizziness and light headedness, frequent need to use the toilet, nausea, tightness across the chest area, tension headaches, hot rushing flushes, increased perspiration, dry mouth, shaking, palpitations,
At the same time as these physiological symptoms which are in themselves frightening some of the most common psychological symptoms of anxiety you made be experiencing are: thinking that you may lose control and/or go “mad”, thinking that you might die, thinking that you may have a heart attack/be sick/faint/have a brain tumour, feeling that people are looking at you and observing your anxiety, that they can ‘see you’ or even ‘see into you’, feeling as though things are speeding up/slowing down, feeling detached from your environment and the people in it, things take on a surrealness, feeling like wanting to run away from the situation, feeling on edge and hyper-alert to everything around you.
As creatures whose main drive is to survive the most common behavioural symptom of anxiety is avoidance. Although avoiding an anxiety causing situation produces immediate relief from the anxiety, it is only a short term solution and can often create more anxiety, for example avoiding an important business meeting could have implications for you in the workplace, missing a social engagement could leave you feeling socially isolated, etc. Avoidance bypasses the problem, and, actually can make things more difficult. This means that whilst it may seem like avoiding is the best thing to do at the time, the anxiety often returns with intensity and avoiding it will only psychologically reinforce the message that there is danger. The problem with avoidance is that you never get to find out whether your fear about the situation and what would happen is actually true or, just a false alarm.
Although all these symptoms, responses and behaviours are frightening and very distressing to you there are plenty of interventions we can work through to help you to manage the symptoms as well as going back to basics and getting that Amygdala back to it’s functional place of alerting us to real danger and engaging in higher brain processes that keep us in control and the body regulated.