All about anxiety?

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.

Who Hijacked My Brain?

You are eating in a restaurant having a pleasant conversation, when you hear a sudden loud crash behind you. Immediately, you you feel your chest tighten and your heart seems to jump into another gear. You might cry out or swear. You turn towards the noise. Maybe you raise your arms to protect yourself, or throw whatever you have in your hand at the source of the noise. You do all this without thinking, because your conscious mind has been hijacked.

Of course, it is just the waiter who has dropped a tray. He apologises for disturbing you, picks up the tray and walks off. Somewhat embarrassed by your reaction, you turn back and try to pick up the conversation, but forget what you were talking about a few seconds ago.

So who hijacked your brain?

Because it was hijacked … you did not consciously decide to react like that, something hijacked your conscious mind and took over. Different people have different reactions; some will recover control in a second or two; others will have a panic attack or start swearing in anger.

Some people notice that their reaction gets worse when under a lot of stress, or when short of sleep. And it doesn’t matter if they have the intelligence of Einstein or the determination of an Apollo astronaut, everyone’s conscious mind gets hijacked sometimes.

So what was it that hijacked your brain?

Well, to start with, it wasn’t all of your brain that got hijacked, only the conscious part. The culprit is a very primitive part called the amygdala. The reaction we all have is called the “amygdala hijack”.

The amygdala is the brain’s security officer. It checks everything that goes on to see if it is safe. If it thinks that there is some kind of emergency, it takes over control – that’s the amygdala hijack. The amygdala isn’t clever, so it picks something that you’ve done before and reacts by doing it again – sometimes totally inappropriately.

So when you find you loose control, even if only for a second, it’s the amygdala hijack. The amygdala is trying to protect you, but sometimes leaves you red-faced or increasingly stressed. This happens to everyone sometimes, but if it causes you problems in your life, contact me at timmaudehypnotherapy.co.uk/contact, and we will see what hypnotherapy can do for you.


Footnote: The term “Amygdala Hijack” was coined by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence.