We all feel it from time to time for what might seem like no apparent reason:
Seemingly out of nowhere, your heart and breathing rate quicken.
You become hypervigilant to your surroundings; hypersensitive to sounds, light, smells
You feel uneasy, unsettled, tense
You’re perspiring even though you’re not cold, especially under your arms
Why? What is wrong with me?! There is NO REASON for me to feel this way.
You know you’re not sick . . . or are you. It’s getting worse. Is the pain in your chest serious? Was it just a gas bubble? You feel light-headed and you may feel like you can’t catch your breath. Do you need go to the ER?
Sometimes you feel all the above and sometimes less. The feelings are hard to control. The various symptoms and combinations of them make you feel uneasy and insecure in your own skin.
The more you condemn yourself for the feelings, the more you try to stop them, the longer they persist. And now you can’t concentrate on what you need to do, which makes you harder on yourself and wanting to throw your hands up and just . . . give up? Give up what? You can’t “cry uncle” to be spared the grip of discomfort, because you are there alone with yourself in your dilemma. AND, you have to go on with your day and that itself makes you more tense.
What triggers your feelings of anxiety?
Maybe you’re worried about a problem at work with your boss. Even thinking of your highly critical employer starts your heart racing and not in a good way.
Maybe you have butterflies in your stomach while waiting for the results of an exam.
But more often, the trigger that set off the stream of scary reactions is not readily apparent. And research shows that the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to recognize signals of threat and stressors without tying them to an event from your past.
You’re not alone. In life, everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. For most people, feelings of anxiety come and go, only lasting a short time. Some moments of anxiety are shorter than others, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.
Anxiety symptoms range from mild distress to moderate discomfort to intense panic reactions. Most people with mild to moderate responses tend not to get help, so they’re not counted in the anxiety statistics. Interestingly, most cases of anxiety are diagnosed when the person who is panicking is so frightened that they seek medical attention.
Anxiety is the most commonly reported emotional condition in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults and probably far, far more who do not seek help.
Anxiety is a normal emotion.
From an evolutionary viewpoint, it is adaptive since it promotes survival by stirring people to steer clear of perilous places or give them the energy and strength to confront the danger.
Since the earliest days of humanity, the approach of predators and other forms of danger set off alarms in the body that allow self-protective actions. The perceived danger causes a rush of adrenalin, a hormone and chemical messenger in the brain, which then triggers the “fight-or-flight’ response. Anxiety prepares people to react to the potential threat, to take action so they can return to safety.
There are markers of real threats, things we can notice through all our senses. When a child touches a hot stove and feels the pain of the excessive heat, he feels frightened and immediately withdraws his hand. Dad sees the threat and yells to him “don’t touch.” But it’s too late, his hand feels the sting of heat. The child learns to avoid the burners or the pots on top of them. This learned response is protective.
An example from my life.
A number of years ago my Doberman made it clear he needed to go out. It was 5am in Manhattan just before sunrise, so it was still dark out. We stayed close to home, walking around the block, a few times to give him his opportunity to relieve himself.
Two men who seemed by their raucous talk and the way they were hanging onto each other to be inebriated, staggered past us. They suddenly stopped, laughed, spun around and started heading back towards us motioning towards my dog.
One of them had something in his pocket that was pointed in our direction. A knife? A gun? An icy wave of dread sped up my spine. I told my dog, “Easy!” in a loud firm voice. “Easy” is actually the command to go on alert, be ready to pounce if needed, although most people would think it was telling the dog to calm down. That stopped them for a moment as I intended. Then I commanded Dami to “heel” as we ran half a block to the front of my building and safety.
The cold shiver up my spine was raw fear in response to that threatening moment. The men acted in a manner that was menacing. I made the right decision to get to safety as quickly and efficiently as possible.
How might that moment of fear translate to anxiety?
Following that experience, on another occasion seeing two men of the same age and appearance and jauntiness, consciously or unconsciously, I might be reminded of that scary event. Since the first two had started coming towards me and my dog, maybe these men would also be intimidating, even though they didn’t seem to be acknowledging my presence.
But what if they did . . . While not an apparent danger in real time, the chance of being bullied or physically harmed might trigger a sense of anxiety, making me decide to steer clear of them. Even though they may be perfectly friendly people, they reminded me of the ruffians. Heart pounding, I might cross the street or turn back the other way to avoid the possibility of having to encounter them in an altercation or situation where I would risk personal harm.
Evolution of Anxiety
Today, running from larger animals, predators and other imminent danger is a less pressing concern than it would have been for early humans. Our ancestors survived through fight or flight mechanisms and responses to threat. Anxiety was an emotion that helped protect humans in an “Immediate Return Environment — IRE.” Our brains were built for solving short-term, acute problems. There was no such thing as chronic stress because there aren’t really chronic problems in an Immediate Return Environment.
Animals in the wild do not demonstrate chronic stress. Professor Mark Leary of Duke University observes, “A deer may be startled by a loud noise and take off through the forest, but as soon as the threat is gone, the deer immediately calms down and starts grazing.” When you live in an Immediate Return Environment, you only have to worry about acute stressors. Once the threat is gone, so is the anxiety.
Instead of dealing with IRE menaces in our immediate environment, most of our anxiety revolves around work, money, relationships, family life, health, accomplishments.
What’s interesting about the differences is that most of the stressors we deal with in everyday life require a pause to think and evaluate before acting. It is often not a good idea to take action spontaneously to the discomfort because there are various repercussions. I.e., your boss says something cruel to you in front of others. You probably won’t lash back by hitting with weapons and perhaps not words. You have to think about it and come up with a plan. This is referred to as a Delayed Return Environment. The result is we are likely to hold onto to the stress, which keeps the tension and angst about the problem whirring in the background of our minds, keeping stress hormones active and disturbing.
Will I have enough money to pay the bills next month? Will I get the promotion at work or remain stuck in my current job? Will I repair my broken relationship? Problems in a Delayed Return Environment can rarely be solved right now in the present moment. Hence, the delayed relief and continued tension.
So why is it important to understand what anxiety is and what might be precipitating your feelings?
We tend to blame ourselves for our unpleasant feelings instead of commending ourselves for our intelligence in recognizing signals of threat.
Appreciating ourselves for being human and responsive helps us to deal with the potential danger or risk.
An uncomfortable sensation arises. Reflect:
I’m feeling _______. Not sure what’s triggering it. What might it be?
Could it be? _________? _________?_________?_________?_________?
Hmmmmmm. Ok, I think it’s this. Thinking about the feelings I was experiencing, I was reminded of ___________. That makes sense. I saw ________ and it reminded me of _______
Is that a concern now? Yes? How so? What might I do to protect myself?
No? Great. I can let it go.
Anxiety Is Actually Helpful
Anxiety can offer a variety of positive things to our lives:
- It makes you Pay Attention:
When we are anxious, our attention shifts to things that are important in our lives. It makes us recognize things that deserve our attention and then becomes instrumental in preparation and motivation.
- It’s Motivating.
Research shows that anxiety is a powerful motivating force. It drives you to do things to solve the problem.
- It’s Protective:
It is a way to protect us from danger. When we address potential threats, realistically, we protect ourselves from harm.
- It helps you Prepare:
If you have a big speech, test or event coming up, you may feel anxious as it approaches. Anxiety drives you to prepare for the situation, to cover all the bases and to consider what you would do in worst-case scenarios. Studies show that in certain situations, anxiety can help you be more prepared for a disaster or difficult situation.
- It pushes us to Communicate with others:
Talking with others is a way we dispel fears or find solutions to real concerns. In reaching out to others there’s an opportunity to help us find support and a safe place, and it can be effective in bonding and creating closer relationships.
The next time you are experiencing anxiety, take a moment and ask yourself what purpose this anxiety is serving you, is it helpful or not. Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to manage your anxiety.
To wind down your emotions and physiology …
* Applaud yourself for figuring out the connection!
* Go for a walk, work out, dance — MOVE! — exercise burns away anxiety
* Journal about it
* Put some ice on the back of your neck. See my article here: https://www.sharonlivingstonphd.com/post/how-to-ice-stress-and-anxiety
* Drink water to detox the stress hormones you’re experiencing
* Call a friend and help them solve a problem — Focus on someone else and help them with something they’re worried about
* Watch comedy — laughter is great for stress relief
To remembering who you are with all your strengths, feelings and intelligence!