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What is anxiety?

January 19, 2021

What is anxiety?

One of the questions I am constantly asked by clients and non-clients alike, is ‘what is anxiety?’ And it isn’t a simple question to answer. The National Health Service (NHS) describes anxiety as ‘ … a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe’ (https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/generalised-anxiety-disorder/). This is a helpful statement on how anxiety manifests. Certainly, my degree studies referred to anxiety as ‘fear’ and depression as ‘sadness’. Generalisations they are, but the feeling that they can bring about are often fairly accurate. Unease, worry or fear, being mild or severe. At its mildest, anxiety can make you feel ‘uneasy’. A sense that something isn’t right, doesn’t add up, or is amiss. At its most severe, anxiety can be a crippling condition which can leave sufferers experiencing panic attacks, and a very real sense of fright. If experienced alongside depression, it can feel like a rollercoaster of ups and downs from which there can be little respite, until help is sought from a trained professional.

The mechanisms of anxiety

The human brain is the most complex entity in the known universe. With hundreds of billions of cells which interlink through trillions more junctions, it is not only the ‘command centre’ for the central nervous system, but also the repository for thoughts, experiences and memories. It has input and output functions, which receive signals and stimuli such as touch, pain and temperature, but also output, such as movement, muscle activity and conversation. Each of these are located within differing regions of the brain, and the anxiety circuit is remarkable. It all begins with sight, sound, and what I call ‘the big red button’, a part of the brain called the amygdala. And the result of this process is to keep you alive, through a response which isn’t really designed to cause anxiety at all.

The early warning stress response

Anxiety is the body’s early warning system. Often called ‘fight or flight’, the stress response is the brain’s way of trying to keep the body alive. Coming from the amygdala (or as I call it: ‘the big red button’), once a threat is sensed the amygdala activates a sequence of chemical and hormonal changes which prepare the body to fight, or to flee. The sequence is often ‘freeze, flight’ or ‘fight’, where the ‘freeze’ part is akin to that ‘rabbit in the headlights’ feeling. It can be seen in nature documentaries: a group of gazelles at the watering hole don’t see the lionesses creeping up on them in a circular formation. One sees a lioness and many detect the threat through their sight, or hearing. They freeze, as a way of blending in to the background. One lioness pounces: the gazelles flee (the flight part). One gets cornered and a lioness approaches. The gazelle fights the lioness (the fight part) only to give it enough space to flee again (a gazelle stands a better chance running, than fighting a lioness). If the gazelle gets away, the stress response has done its job. Amazing, isn’t it?

gazelle

Biology, anxiety, and the stress response

The physiological changes begin with sight and hearing input, which activates the amygdala, (that ‘big red button’ I mentioned earlier). This sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, another brain structure which communicates with the autonomic nervous system, which controls functions such as breathing, blood pressure and heartbeat. The nervous system then prepares the body to ‘take action’, and will stimulate increased blood pressure, muscle activity, increase breathing rate, and heart activity, it will evacuate blood from visceral organs in case of attack and injury (which is why we feel our stomach seem to ‘lurch’ when highly anxious). Our vision and hearing sharpens. Harvard Medical School explain the process in fine detail, explaining the HPA axis, or the physiological mechanism which drives the stress response (LINK: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response). All this is a reaction to threat, and anxiety can be seen as the response to life or death threat.

Anxiety and evolution

To put it another way: imagine, in the early days of our evolution many hundreds of thousands of years ago, we were sat in our cave one day. A sabre-toothed tiger walks in, looking for an easy meal. If we stopped, and thought ‘shall I put on the brontosaurus boots, or the mammoth boots?’ we might have been eaten. But imagine instead, the visual stimulus (seeing the sabre-toothed tiger) and the immediate ‘action stations, run or fight’ response, if you grabbed the nearest club and ran at the sabre-toothed tiger, swinging? They are very different perspectives. One means you get eaten, the other means you get to live, procreate, and continue your blood line. However, the issue with anxiety and the stress response, is that it can’t differentiate between sabre-tooth tigers and aggressive emails from a senior manager, or having to speak in public, or the ongoing oppressive climate of a global pandemic.

Dialing back the stress response

Working with anxiety often requires a methodological approach, that is to explore why anxiety is an issue and why its affect is leading to chronic or ongoing stress. There may be particular ‘triggers’ for the anxiety: work emails, reading the news daily, or a fear of something ‘about to happen’, such as worry about family becoming ill. There can be numerous reasons. Effective ways of managing stress and anxiety can be to engage the relaxation response, through physical activity and with social support. Speaking with a counsellor or trained professional can help identify what is helpful for each individual, as our lives are so very different. Indeed, trained practitioners often have a number of techniques and methods which clients can learn, to help minimise high stress levels, panic attacks and anxiety. But let’s look at each of the helpful parts to dig a little deeper into other possible solutions for anxiety.

open-arms

Lessening anxiety

Techniques which can help invite the relaxation response, as proposed by Dr. Herbert Benson (https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/using-the-relaxation-response-to-reduce-stress-20101110780) often include deep, abdominal breathing with a focus on being ‘present’, such as yoga, Tai Chi, visualisation techniques, Mindfulness and Transcendental Meditation. The requirement on being in the present and current moment, with a focus on what is taking place, can prevent the mind from racing ahead to future events, or ruminating over past events. If we are in ‘now’, it is difficult to be anywhere else.

Physical activity:

Stress can be managed in several ways through the use of physical activity, which, again, requires a mental presence to avoid the mind wandering off or getting caught up in other thoughts. In addition, physical activity can help release ‘feel good’ chemicals such as endorphins, which can help decrease anxiety levels by reducing tension, and helping to improve self-esteem and sleep. It is suggested that even five minutes of aerobic exercise can help counter effects of anxiety (https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/managing-anxiety/exercise-stress-and-anxiety).

Social support:

As social beings, used to living in ‘tribes’ or groups, social support can be especially helpful in reducing anxiety and stress. This is a key issue for many due to the COVID-19 pandemic: contact has been minimised due to legislative orders and most ‘contact’ has been through various conferencing platforms or by telephone. However, social contact can enhance our sense of support, and contacts with friends, family, co-workers, relatives, spouses and neighbours, can enhance and sustain us through times of anxiety and stress.

Anxiety thinks it’s helping!

Unless caused by an ongoing issue which is directly causing you anxiety, such as an illness, concern about redundancy or an imminent exam, there is every change that anxiety feels it is helping you out. Keeping you safe. And it has a point. To some degree, we want our ‘early warning system’ to be running in the background. For example: if a bus mounts the pavement and heads towards you, you really could do with this system firing up to get you out of the way. However, if the anxiety is really something you could do without, then have a look at the stress and anxiety page on my website. Better still, schedule a call, or drop me an email for a conversation about how things can be different. Because: if anxiety isn’t something you’ve had your whole life, then there’s every chance you won’t need to keep experiencing it, leaving you feeling more calm, controlled, and able to think clearly again.

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