Many of us know how anxiety feels, but do we actually know what anxiety is?
Anxiety has become such a common phrase in our fast-paced lives. We all seem to know someone struggling with anxiety, and we know it is on the rise.
The increase in diagnosed anxiety disorders may be the result of our increasing lifestyle commitments and work pressures, as well as a reflection of our worries regarding the uncertain world we now live in and constant social media comparisons.
The Mental Health Foundation report that anxiety is most prevalent for 16 to 24 year olds and affects more women than men:
- In 2021, those aged 16 to 29 years were most likely to have some form of anxiety (28%)
- Anxiety decreases steadily through the age groups, and the least likely group was those aged 70 and over (5%)
- In 2022, an average of 37.1% of women and 29.9% of men reported high levels of anxiety
However, while these statistics are high, they still only cover the people that seek help. Many more people suffer in silence.
But What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion we experience when we are worried, tense, nervous or afraid – particularly about something that is about to happen, or that we think could happen in the future.
Anxiety is a completely natural human response when we perceive that we are under “threat”. It is evolutionary and we would not have survived as a species without it.
Definition of Threat: a person or thing likely to cause damage or danger
Anxiety can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physical sensations.
Anxiety exists to keep us safe and focused on the things that are important to us. Therefore, if we feel anxious about an upcoming job interview, that makes sense, assuming we want to stay focused and we want the job. If we are anxious about taking a driving test or exam, that makes sense, assuming we want to stay focused and we want to pass. If we feel anxious about speaking in public, that makes sense, assuming we want to stay focused and we want to do a good performance.
This is when anxiety can be our friend as it helps us perform at our best. Many athletes and performers embrace their anxiety for this reason!
However, anxiety can become overwhelming and we can become anxious about being anxious. This is when anxiety may impact our ability to do our job, it may impact our relationships, and it may start to impact on other day to day activities. In extreme cases, we may want to avoid leaving the house altogether.
When this happens, we need to understand how anxiety has evolved. We need to understand the fight or flight response.
When We Feel Anxious About Being Anxious
So, just the same as all mammals, humans have evolved ways to help us protect ourselves from threats.
The threat may be related to something that is happening in the present moment, or it could relate to how we expect something to happen in the future.
When we perceive there is a threat, our fight or flight response is triggered in our brain, and certain hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released.
This makes us more alert and hyper vigilant. Our heart rate increases, we speed up our breathing and send blood rushing to our limbs to prepare us to run away and escape the fear.
This is a totally natural reaction to a threat, and this flight and fight response has ensured our species have survived over 200,000 years.
Now this all makes sense when we were living in tribes and had to survive vicious animals. We all wanted to be super alert should a tiger want to have us for his dinner.
It doesn’t always serve us so well when we are safe on the sofa in our own house!
This is because our expectations about the event we perceive as threatening may be based on our own lived experience, or alternatively, something we have seen or heard or been told or even imagined. So every time we sit down to watch the news, we may be triggering our anxiety.
If we look at animals in the wild, they too have a fight and flight response and will instinctively run away from danger. When the danger has passed, they go back to grazing.
We on the other hand, replay the event over and over in our minds. Our thoughts and emotions take over, and we want to avoid that same threat at all costs. If one person has let us down, we can overthink the event and start believing that everyone will let us down. This is why it is harder for us to feel safe again.
Anxiety Is Like A Smoke Alarm
You can think of our fight and flight response a bit like a smoke alarm. It is a warning that something or someone may threaten us. Some smoke alarms are more sensitive than others, and will notify us when we have just burnt the toast….
Sometimes a change, including a rational and positive one, can be perceived as a threat and we may overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, starting a new job, work pressure and family difficulties.
When we avoid situations, we can then become anxious by everyday events such as walking into a crowded shopping centre or restaurant, we may become anxious of confined spaces such as a lift or even a car, we may become anxious about spiders or blood, or just people in general, which results in us being unable to attend any social events.
This is when our anxiety is no longer helpful, and it begins to have a major impact on our lives.
When Anxiety Impacts Our Everyday
Our anxiety is usually triggered by a place or situation, and our thoughts, feelings and behaviours tend to interact together and create physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, nausea, stomach cramps, sweating, trembling, overheating etc.
These thoughts, feelings and symptoms are usually unpleasant experiences, so we often try to take back an element of control by avoiding situations or events that cause us to feel threatened, or repeating rituals to help us feel more in control.
We may find ourselves engaging in safety-seeking behaviours, such as not leaving the house if we are anxious in social situations, or not opening our post or checking our emails if we are anxious about our finances.
These behaviours may create a short-term reduction in anxiety as we don’t need to address or worry about the underlying issue but continuing to avoid the fear will maintain or even exasperate the problem in the long term. These “coping” behaviours can also stop us from having the opportunity to see if we could cope without them.
Alternatively, we may try and numb the fear or feeling by turning to alcohol, drugs, video games, gambling, social media, work, sex or food as a crutch. Again, this may reduce the anxiety temporarily, but if we teach ourselves to rely on them to block out what we are really feeling, they can create even more anxiety in the long term. These are all unhelpful strategies as they do not address the underlying issue or what is worrying us in the first place.
Long Term Impacts of Anxiety
Over time, repeated activation of the fight and flight response takes a toll on the body.
Research suggests that chronic anxiety contributes to high blood pressure and obesity, both directly through causing people to comfort eat more, and indirectly through decreasing sleep and exercise.
Elevated cortisol levels (triggered when we are anxious) also lead to an increased appetite to help replenish energy stores that are depleted during the fight and flight response.
According to research from the Harvard Medical School, adrenaline surges can damage blood vessels and arteries, increasing blood pressure and increasing the risk of heart attacks or strokes.
Helpful Strategies for Anxiety Relief
It is possible to learn techniques that relax the body and mind and invoke the “rest and digest” response. This is the opposite of our “fight and flight”. These include
- deep abdominal breathing
- focusing on repeating a soothing phrase such as “I am Calm, I am Safe”
- visualisation of tranquil scenes
- journaling and gratitude
- mindfulness and meditation
- yoga and tai chi
Exercise can also counteract the fight and flight response. Taking a brisk walk or run in nature naturally deepens your breathing while helping to relieve muscle tension. Being in nature can refocus your mind on the here and now too, knowing you are safe in this moment.
Reach out to a family member or a friend. Talking is a great way to distress and hearing yourself say things out loud enables you to often see challenges with a new perspective.
As crazy as it may sound, if you are in a heightened state of anxiety right now, you can learn to listen to it, and what it is trying to warn you about.
Then make a conscious decision to ignore it or not. While this doesn't happen overnight, it is possible for everyone to achieve.
If You Need Further Support with Your Mental Wellbeing and Anxiety
If you need further support with your Mental Health, a trained Anxiety Specialist/Coach can prescribe you with a personalised plan to understand the root cause of your anxiety, as well as help you develop coping strategies that are focused around your individual needs.
Taking care of your mental health is an essential part of your overall well-being. Left unresolved, anxiety can spiral out of control and have a significant impact on relationships, work, school and family life.
It is my belief that no one needs to struggle with anxiety, we just need the tools and techniques to overcome it.
So if you want to take the next steps to have a happier life where your fears no longer hold you back, click the link below and book a free no obligation consultancy call.
Discover a fast way to Reduce Anxiety Right Now
Read about 5 Strategies to Calm Anxiety
Watch some Breathing Techniques to Reduce Anxiety
Download my eBook on Workplace Stress and Anxiety
Published 24th October 2021
Last updated 12th June 2023