This is a brief description of anxiety and why we have it. I do not cover in any detail what to do about it. I will leave that for other posts.
Signs and Symptoms
When we experience anxiety, we usually notice a number of signs and symptoms in our body and mind. People will typically notice one or more of the following:
- An uncomfortable feeling in the chest or stomach
- Increased muscle tension
- Increased breathing rate
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure
- Increase in adrenaline and cortisol in the body
- Inability to stop worrying that something bad will happen (overthinking)
- Inability to stop reminding themselves or re-living something bad that happened in the past
- Inability to think clearly
- Increased jumpiness at sudden noises or movements
- Panic attacks
Anxiety comes in different degrees – from mild anxiety to full blown panic attacks.
Anxiety and Excitement
The feeling of anxiety is similar to the feeling of excitement. This is why some people get excited when they go on a rollercoaster or one of those scary rides, and others get panicky and scared. The body gets a similar reaction in both cases – a burst of adrenaline and cortisol. Some people love it and others hate it.
What anxiety is for
Anxiety is basically nature’s way of getting you to focus on potential danger. It is getting ready for the fight-or-flight-or-freeze response to danger. Imagine our ancestors who lived day-to-day by hunting and gathering. If they noticed signs of a pack of dangerous animals hunting in the area, they would become anxious as they went about their daily activities. The anxiety made them focus more of their attention on the possibility that they might be attacked by predators. They would be more aware of noises and movement that they might catch out of the corner of their eyes.
Their anxiety would increase if the danger was imminent. The brain would focus more on the potential danger than on gathering food. And as the danger lessened, the brain would focus more on gathering food than on the danger. Getting the balance right is key.
How the brain gets it wrong
In modern society, in most (but not all) parts of the world, we do not experience life-threatening dangers on a regular basis. But the part of the brain that deals with anxiety (the amygdala) is very primitive, and does not understand the modern world. It is the same brain structure that our hunter-gatherer ancestors had many years ago, and now has to deal with a society that has moved on. So the amygdala sometimes gets it wrong. It creates anxiety when there is no life-threatening event happening around us.
And what is more, once it learns a pattern, the amygdala tends to stick with it. So if someone starts to get anxious when going into a crowded supermarket, say, the amygdala will attempt to repeat the pattern of anxiety next time they go into a crowded supermarket. This pattern then becomes reinforced. Sometimes we can recognise the triggers that give rise to anxiety, and sometimes we cannot. In some cases anxiety is a constant presence.
Everyone had moments of anxiety at sometime in their lives. Even the most calm people will feel a twinge of anxiety if they see a car speeding towards them as they start to cross the road. This is normal. But some people suffer from a large amount of anxiety all or most of the time. Their amygdala has somehow learned to become over-sensitive, creating anxiety when it’s not needed.
Classification of anxiety
Doctors will classify anxiety disorders, but they are all variations on the same thing. The main classification of anxiety disorders are
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Social anxiety disorder (SAD)
- Panic disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Doing something about it
There are three main approaches to doing something about anxiety. I am not going to cover these in any detail in this post:
- Self-help – there is a lot of advice available to help you help yourself – including such things as mindfulness, breathing techniques, distraction techniques and so on
- Therapies – there are many talking and other therapies that can help
- Medication – prescribed medication can include anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants (which also help with anxiety)
As a hypnotherapist – of course, I would recommend hypnotherapy. But I know that hypnotherapy is not for everyone. You need to make your own decisions about what is best for you. The first step is to decide whether or not your anxiety impacts your life sufficiently for you to want to do something about it. The next thing is to recognise that there are things you can do about it – you are not stuck with it forever. It is at this point that you can start to turn it round.