According to an article by the Priory Group the word ‘anxiety’ is googled 21 times per minute in the UK which equates to about 30,000 times per day. That’s a lot of people feeling anxious and wanting to know more about it so I thought I’d dedicate this months blog to exploring why we feel anxious, what happens in our body when we are anxious and the different ways anxiety can affect us.
We human beings have evolved to experience a wide range of emotions – joy, sadness, disgust, shame, anger, excitement and anxiety. Yes, anxiety is a normal human emotion. When we experience anxiety it does not mean that we are ‘mad’, ‘bad’ or ‘different’, it simply means that we are human and we are responding to something which we experience as threatening.
Way back when we were all living in caves we learned that anxiety was helpful to our survival. When a Saber-toothed tiger came along the people who didn’t feel anxious were quickly gobbled up whereas the people who were anxious protected themselves and survived long enough to pass their genes on to the next generation. Eventually these ‘anxious genes’ find themselves inside us in our modern day world – thankfully free of threats like Saber-toothed tigers. Whilst the threats we face today are very different to our ancestors we still have the same physical response.
When we come face to face with something we find threatening a complex physical response is triggered as our body works hard to get us to safety. Stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol flood our system much like an alarm bell being rung. The heart beats faster and our breath quickens as we try to get as much oxygen as possible pumping round our body. Over time this may lead us to feel dizzy, light headed and experience an unpleasant tight feeling around the chest. You may notice strange sensations in your stomach, perhaps a desperate need to go to the toilet or to be sick. This is because your body doesn’t want to waste precious energy digesting that sandwich you just ate when it needs to focus on getting to safety. Next time you feel anxious take a look in a mirror and you will probably notice that the pupils of your eyes have dilated. Again, this has an advantage because it means that your eyes are trying to take in as much information about the threat as possible and looking out for ways to escape.
These physical responses are all fine and well when we have a direct threat in front of us like the Saber-toothed tiger however our modern threats are very different. Having all these physical responses going on when we are trying to give a presentation, go on a first date or await the results of medical investigations only adds to our problems.
When we feel anxious we may want to hide away from the threat, cancel plans, stay at home and shut ourselves away from the world. We may also try our best to face the threat but do whatever we can to prevent our worst fears from happening – we call these ‘safety behaviours’. This could be things such as constantly looking up unexplained medical symptoms online, phoning family members just to check that they are ok or spending an excessive amount of time prepping for an interview at the expense of all other things we could be doing.
Sometimes our ‘anxiety alarm’ can become a bit too sensitive – like a car alarm that sounds every time the neighbours cat goes past. There can be lots of reasons for this, perhaps related to our upbringing, a period of prolonged stress or experiencing an unexpected trauma. The reason why we feel anxious isn’t always clear and this only adds to our distress. The physical symptoms of anxiety may be very normal and part of an evolutionary physiological response but they feel unpleasant and it’s natural that we’d want to reduce these feelings.
If we feel like anxiety is starting to take over our lives, making us miserable and preventing us from doing the things we want to do we may benefit from some treatment. At this stage it’s helpful to think of anxiety as an ‘umbrella term’ for quite a few different types of anxiety disorder. This helps us to understand exactly what is making us feel anxious, and any ways we may be thinking or behaving which could be unintentionally adding to the problem. I’ve written about these different types of anxiety disorders in previous blogs so if you would like to know more about them then click on the link and it will take you to more specific information.