Millions of people are living with anxiety today and it seems as though it is becoming increasingly commonplace. We are all too familiar with the symptoms but how much do we understand about it? If you need help overcoming anxiety, then read on to find out how anxiety works and how to deal with it.
Why do we get anxiety?
Anxiety is part of our survival kit; after all, none of us would live very long if we didn’t have anxiety letting us know not to take stupid risks. But of course, too much anxiety can be problematic. When it’s out of control, it can be as debilitating as a physical illness and overcoming anxiety can seem impossible.
When the emotional part of our brain recognises something in our environment that it considers a threat, then it will trigger our body’s stress response. This brings with it many of the symptoms that we recognise as feeling anxious. To understand why this is happening then it’s necessary to know a little more about the emotional brain.
Understanding the emotional brain
We have a thinking brain that rationalises, enabling us to work things out logically and make plans. We also have an emotional brain, which preceded the thinking part of the brain in our evolution. This is our instinctive mammalian brain, and it works tirelessly to keep us safe and alive. We understand our worlds through patterns. For example, we may describe something as being like a cat but bigger, or someone looks a bit like a famous person. We store pictures and patterns and use them to make sense of new things that we see, hear and learn. Pattern matching forms part of our human ‘toolkit’ along with other tools like imagination and empathy.
What do we need to be healthy?
Obviously we have physical needs to keep us healthy: air, water, food, shelter, sleep, etc. But we also have some basic emotional needs that we need to be well met. These are:
- The need to feel secure, financially, physically and in our relationships
- Giving and receiving attention
- A sense of belonging to a community
- Having an element of control over our lives
- Being able to have privacy
- Having at least one intimate relationship, can be a close friend
- Feeling an emotional connection to other people
- Having status that is acknowledged by colleagues or friends and family
- A sense of achievement or being competent in at least one area of our lives
- Having a sense of purpose, being stretched mentally or physically
How are yours being met? Check them out here.
If these needs are threatened it can create a traumatic memory which is stored in our emotional brain. The amygdala, our brain’s very own security officer, constantly scans our environment checking for danger. So, when it encounters something that it perceives to be similar to the pattern of a trauma memory it triggers our fight or flight mechanism to make us take action to avoid the danger. And at this point our emotional brain takes charge. In order to keep us safe, it reduces the thinking brain’s capacity so that we don’t overthink causing unnecessary hesitation. This reduction in our thinking brain’s ability, means that we’re not able to assess the situation realistically. As a result, all of the time that we’re in an anxious state, we’re not able to trust our thoughts.
How does this create anxiety?
Of course, this mechanism originally evolved in a time when danger meant we might get eaten by a lion. These days, the dangers posed to our emotional brain are much more subtle. For example, you may be at work, and something goes wrong and it looks as though part of the blame may be pointed at you. You may experience a sudden feeling of unease, feel hot and your heart might start beating a little faster. This is your fight or flight mechanism in action which, in this more subtle form, we recognise as anxiety. In this example, it’s your need for status and possibly security that are being threatened. We rarely consciously make a connection from an everyday situation to a primeval human need, but our emotional brain does. Because we are not consciously aware that our emotional needs are under threat, we focus on the anxious feelings.
The Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
When triggered into a state of fight or flight our brain sets in motion a number of physical changes to help us be stronger or run faster. Your breathing and heart rates increase to provide us with the oxygen for the increased demand. Our bodies are flooded with stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol to give us extra speed and strength.
In reality, the kind of danger we are mostly facing these days does not require us to physically fight anything or run away. So all these physical reactions don’t end up getting discharged quickly if we just sit at our desk worrying! This prolongs the feeling and makes us feel very uncomfortable. We tend instead, to focus on the symptoms and then panic because it feels as if something is really wrong. This can lead to panic attacks and chest pains, dizziness and feeling out of control.
Understanding these physical symptoms and why they happen can really help keep us calm when we start to feel anxious. And this means our body and brain can get back to normal much quicker with far less distress.
For more information about the physical symptoms of panic and anxiety and how they are generated, click here.
This also includes an useful explanation of why we can struggle for breath when panicking, even when taking deep breaths.
Are we becoming more anxious?
There is no doubt that in our culture we have never spoken so much about anxiety as we do now. Are we getting more anxious as time goes by? We think that there are two sides to this.
In western culture, many advances that we have adopted into our lives, undoubtedly affect our aforementioned emotional needs. Unrelenting social media, emails, messages at all hours of the day impinge on our privacy and control. We are more insular than we’ve ever been and many people don’t know their neighbours. We shop, game and talk online, and this can affect our sense of community and emotional connection. When our emotional needs are compromised it leads to mental health problems, resulting in anxiety and depression among other things. So it would make sense that our anxiety is on the rise.
We’ve certainly become more aware of this rise, and it’s encouraging that mental health is being spoken about more freely. However, there is now a tendency to treat anxiety as a disease. We have become overly focused on the symptoms and overcoming anxiety without investigating the causes. It’s treated as though once you ‘catch’ anxiety, all you can do is manage it with medication or endless monitoring. But when you understand how the body creates anxiety and why, it is surely a better use of time and energy to tackle the underlying causes?
The label of anxiety
Whilst it’s great that we’re more aware, we’re in danger of labelling all anxious feelings under the heading of anxiety. Some anxious feelings are completely natural. You are justified in feeling anxious if you suddenly find you may be in danger of losing your job. If you look over the edge of a cliff, you are bound to feel an anxious flutter in your tummy. These are natural reactions and we need them to keep us safe. Our focus shouldn’t be about overcoming anxiety, but about understanding it and why it is out of control.
Overcoming anxiety – can it be done?
The short answer to this is no. Overcoming anxiety completely is not possible. We need the function of fight or flight to stop us from taking stupid risks and to alert us to danger. Even if we could turn this off, we’d be ill advised to do so. But can we overcome the debilitating anxiety that can take over our lives?
The answer to that is yes we can. Understanding it is a good start. Also not treating it as a disease that we have to live with for the rest of our lives. It is possible to make life much easier by understanding what can calm the emotional brain. Also if you target the cause, or triggers, rather than the symptoms you stand a greater chance of getting rid of it forever.
Things you can do to help manage anxiety
Here are some things that you can do yourself that will cut through anxious feelings and thoughts. If you do this early on, you can cut down the amount of time that the anxiety attack lasts and even avoid a panic attack.
The first thing to bear in mind is that when our emotional brain is in charge, it switches off our thinking brain. This means we’re unable to think clearly and we’re likely to view life in black and white terms. This kind of thinking is all or nothing and catastrophic. For example, I’m never going to get another job. Luckily for us, just as our emotional brain switches off our thinking brain, it also works the other way round. If we purposely engage our thinking brain on something mundane, such as listing out something, trying to remember the lyrics to a song or doing some mental arithmetic it can pull us out of that emotional state and cut it short. Or try this helpful grounding exercise
Calm your emotional brain down in general by doing this breathing exercise. This can be done when you feel anxious, but it’s best done as a routine in the morning and evening, to generally lower your emotional levels. This means that you’re more likely to be able to manage your stress levels and not have an anxiety attack.
Mindfulness and meditation are great ways to calm your emotional brain down. All anxious thoughts are centred either on the past or the future. Meditation and mindfulness keep our attention locked in the present moment, and this means that anxious thoughts are not generated.
Remember the fight or flight explanation and all the physical changes that the body goes through in that state? Well, as we explained the sort of dangers we face today rarely utilise those stress hormones. Exercise is fantastic for clearing out stress hormones in the body. Even just 20 minutes a day can help. And if you begin to feel panicky and you are in good health, even just running up and down on the spot for a couple of minutes can cut through it.
Get some help to overcome it completely
Hopefully the above tips will help you to manage your thoughts and be able to stem the tide of anxiety. However, if you are doing this regularly and the anxious feelings keep being triggered then it is pretty exhausting. It’s a good idea to get some help to understand what memories or patterns of behaviour might be driving the anxious thoughts. Overcoming anxiety to the point where it returns to being the natural and essential tool that it should be, is possible!
Therapy can get to the root of the thoughts by targeting the trauma patterns or thought patterns that are stored in the emotional brain. Certainly trauma or PTSD can be at the root of the anxiety and both require specialist help. Once the brain no longer perceives ordinary things in your everyday life as dangerous, anxious thoughts aren’t being triggered you and you won’t have to manually override them and manage them. Which means you can just get on with your life!
I hope you have found this information about overcoming anxiety helpful. As always, please share if you know someone who would benefit from reading it. For more information and useful downloads, head over to our website.
With very best wishes