On Anxiety, and Why It’s Not Our fault!
What happens in our brains when we are anxious and how we can help ourselves
Anxiety is our natural response to fear.
A long time ago, humans had to have a certain amount of anxiety to survive. Being faced with a rather large predator, we needed to feel fear and anxiety to run. Our mammalian brains would switch on the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response. This set our hearts racing, blood rushing to our extremities, and our rational thinking brain offline. It was no good thinking, “oh dear, there’s a large mammal running at me. He may want to eat me. I’ll have a think about how I’m going to get out of this one.” No, our bodies set us in motion before we could think.
All of this happens automatically when faced with a threat; we act in response to the threat. However, it’s not every day that we are faced with a threat like being eaten by a mammal; though the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response is still very much a part of our everyday lives; think about crossing the busy road. If a truck was coming towards us, we would have to feel anxious and run, or we would be knocked down. Now, we have other, more modern-day threats, worries about paying bills, work, and social pressures. These threats can set our hearts racing in pretty much the same way.
What Happens When Everyday Worries Become Anxiety?
Do you ever feel that you can’t shake the constant anxiety, but have no idea what purpose it is serving and why you can’t get rid of it? It’s almost as though the anxiety switch in your brain has been flicked to ‘on,’ and you can’t switch it back off. In many ways, that is precisely what has happened. If we feel that we are in a state of constant threat, even unconsciously, then our body and brain respond accordingly. Our amygdala inside of our brains receives information and quickly determines whether we are in danger. This emotional center may send signals of fear, anger, sadness to our body. The amygdala lays down codes for emotional memories, and our hippocampus (the remembering and learning part of our brain) lays down codes for event memories.
Say you have a presentation coming up. You are a little nervous as you think that you aren’t really up to the job. You spend a restless night with your ruminating brain keeping you awake. The next day, you stand in front of 30 people, all looking at you and you suddenly have thoughts such as, “I don’t know what I’m talking about, they all think I’m stupid, I’m beginning to sweat. Can they see me sweat? They will know that I don’t know what I’m talking about.” Your thalamus, which receives incoming stimuli, is sending signals to your amygdala that you are under threat, and this is physically preparing you for the fight, flight, freeze response. Your body will be flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, and over time this is not good for your body.
Your heart starts to pound, your mind goes blank, you feel shaky and sick. Your thoughts have gone into overdrive, and your emotions range from fear to feelings of inadequacy. You just want to get away from all of the staring faces, and so you rush off to the toilet, where you lock yourself in and proceed to tell yourself that you are never doing a presentation again.
If you do ever have to give a presentation again, then your amygdala will instantly send off signals of threat. You will sweat, your heart will race, and your stomach will clench. Your hippocampus will remember the last time you found yourself faced with giving a presentation. The body remembers what happened the last time and is trying to protect us from further threats. Even the thought of doing a future presentation can have you sweating and dry-mouthed. The anxiety is merely trying to protect you from further embarrassment, sadness, and fear.
Feeling anxious means that you are telling yourself that you are in danger, and something terrible will happen. Often, we will spend time avoiding what makes us uneasy. Each time we avoid something, it only makes trying again feel even harder. Our thoughts can create anxiety. “I’m going to do a terrible presentation. I’m sure to fail” This, in turn, affects how we feel physically in our bodies (tense, sick, shaky) as well as our emotions (sad, afraid, worthless). These thoughts and feelings then affect how we respond in our behaviors; we might decide not to turn up to do the presentation, or we might get so nervous that we postpone it until another day. Then our thoughts might be, “how could you be so stupid? You needed to ace that presentation, and you didn’t even turn up.” Which makes us feel worse, and the loop continues.
So, how do you break this loop and cope with anxiety? There are many ways that we can deal with anxiety. And anxiety looks different for everyone. Aside from talking therapy and/or medication there are ways that we can begin to help ourselves.
- Breathing exercises can help to calm us down when we begin to feel anxious. Breathing in for the count of 4, holding for 4, and breathing out for 8 can start to calm down the body. As we count, we are focusing on the breath and the counting, which can get our thinking brains back under control.
- Healthy eating and cutting down on alcohol and caffeine can be steps towards lessening anxious feelings as coffee and alcohol serve to increase anxiety.
- Keeping a diary of thoughts and emotions can help us to work out which areas of our lives are causing the most worries and anxiety. Journaling can be cathartic too and can help to get our fears out onto paper.
- Mindfulness. Noticing the things around us from moment to moment can help us to get back in touch with our senses. Being in each moment takes practice, and starting with a few minutes a day can help to slow down the busy, anxious thoughts.
- Grounding Technique 5,4,3,2,1. This technique can be a follow on from breathing exercises to bring you into the present awareness.
We name five things that we can see; “I see the blue sky, the colorful roses…”
Four things that we can feel; “I feel the ground beneath my feet, the soft feel of my clothes on my skin…”
Three sounds that we can hear; “I hear traffic, birds, children playing.”
Two things that we can smell; “I can smell coffee. I can smell the sea.”
One thing that we can taste; “I can taste coffee.”
Working with a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist can help you to examine your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and help you to understand where your worries and anxieties are coming from. The therapist will teach you a variety of techniques that can help you to challenge what you are thinking and alter how you view those thoughts. Understanding how to re-frame your thoughts and perceptions will change how you feel and how you behave. As well as these, the therapist can help teach you calming techniques amongst other strategies to help you to cope with anxiety and eventually enable you to lead a more fulfilling life, free from fear and anxiety. Understanding yourself and your triggers are the first steps.
Originally published at http://stillirisetherapy.co.uk on November 15, 2019.