Anxiety has become a common occurrence in our fast-paced lives and has led to a rise in anxiety-related mental and physical health issues. Anxiety can often 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.
Anxiety is a feeling we experience when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about something that is about to happen, or that we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings, behaviours and physical sensations.
It is a general feeling of fear, panic, overwhelm or nervousness, and it is totally natural.
Fight or Flight response
Just the same as all mammals, humans have evolved ways to help us protect ourselves from danger. When we perceive danger, our fight or flight response is triggered in our reptilian brain, and certain hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released. These hormones make us more alert, increase our heart rate, speed up our breathing and send blood rushing to our limbs to prepare us for escaping the fear. It is a totally natural reaction, and this flight and fight response has ensured our species have survived over 200,000 years.
After we feel the threat has passed, our bodies release other hormones to help our muscles relax. This can sometimes cause us to shake.
However, sometimes a change, including a rational and positive one, can be perceived as a threat. Our reptilian brain overrides our rational developed brain and protects us from that perceived threat. This may result in us overreacting to stressors that are not life-threatening, such as traffic jams, interviews, work pressure, and family difficulties.
We can become totally petrified by everyday events such as such as walking into a crowded shopping centre or restaurant, it may be a fear of getting into a confined space such as a lift or even a car, it may be a phobia about germs or blood, or just people in general which results in us being unable to attend any social events.
This is when our anxieties are no longer helpful, and it begins to have a major impact on our lives.
Our anxiety is usually triggered by a place or situation, and our thoughts, feelings and behaviours tend to interact and increase our anxiety. This results in physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, nausea, stomach cramps, sweating, trembling, overheating etc.
We often try to take back an element control by avoiding certain situations or events, 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 if we are anxious about our finances. These behaviours may create a short-term reduction in anxiety as we don’t need to worry about the underlying issue but 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 what is worrying us in the first place.
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 eat more, and indirectly through decreasing sleep and exercise. Elevated cortisol levels 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.
Rest and Digest response
It is possible to learn techniques that relax the body and mind and invoke the “Rest and Digest” response. These include deep abdominal breathing, focusing on repeating a soothing phrase such as “I am Calm, I am Safe”, visualization of tranquil scenes, mindfulness, 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.
If anxiety is something you or your loved ones struggle with regularly, then please get in touch to discuss how I can help you. You can book a FREE 45 minute discovery call here