When we perceive that there is a threat to our existence our bodies respond by producing the hormone adrenaline.
This prepares us to either fight or flee from the the danger by triggering a number of physical changes designed to increase our chances of survival.
These are useful when facing real, physical, danger but can cause problems in modern life where we often have an anxious response to situations that are not physically threatening but nevertheless feel scary.
'Fight or Flight'
The 'fight or flight' response evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago to increase our chances of survival when faced danger. In primitive times that danger was quite likely to be a real physical threat, such as an attack by a wild animal. The response was also useful in enhancing performance when, for example, hunting or competing with others for scarce resources such as food or water.
The production of adrenaline is mediated by the sympathetic nervous system that kicks into action whenever we perceive a threat, and leads to changes that 'gear us up' to respond to stress. After intense physical exertion, the parasympathetic nervous system produces a series of changes designed to relax us, to help us sleep in order to recover our strength, promote the healing of wounds, fight infection and reduce the intensity of any pain.
The whole system is highly adapted to ensure survival in a primitive and physically stressful environment. Many of us are lucky enough not to live in such an environment today yet this entire system still survives. Because the world we live in is so different, this prehistoric legacy from our savage past can sometimes cause us problems.
Remember, the system is designed to be triggered by what we perceive constitutes a threat, not by what is actually a threat to our survival. Moreover, humans - unlike any other animal that I know of - can become anxious in responses to fearful images that we create in our minds. This means, for example, that we can become anxious about future events - so called anticipatory anxiety.
What this means, in effect, is that humans have the ability to make themselves frightened, to create anxiety in response to stress that may exist solely because we are interpreting or perceiving the world in a stressful way. In short, it is not things themselves that can now frighten us, but our response to those things.
Of course, we may have learned from experience, perhaps in early childhood or in a traumatic situation such as a war, that it is best for us to be frightened, to live life 'on alert' because danger or threat was never far away. We may continue with this 'conditioning' even though the situation has now changed, simply because this is familiar. In some cases we may not realise that there is another way.
Anxiety can be extremely damaging to our lives. There are the physical changes that, over time, can lead to ill health. For example, tense muscles can cause headaches. We can experience gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome. I have even seen chronic anxiety misdiagnosed as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. An anxiety-compromised immune system can lead to endless colds, 'tummy bugs' and general poor health. In the longer term, an immune system that is constantly compromised may increase the risk of cancer and changes in circulation that occur because of anxiety can increase the risk of cardiovascular problems. Anxiety can seriously impact on your health.
The psychological changes caused by anxiety can be equally costly. One of the first things to disappear if you are anxious is creativity. This is obviously a problem if you rely on this in your work and it can also affect your ability to solve problems and overcome difficulties effectively. This can, in turn, lead to greater stress and hence more anxiety. We become irritable and this affects relationships. Constantly stressed, we make poor companions. If we turn to drink or drugs, things only get worse.
What can I do to help myself?
There are probably more 'self-help' books on anxiety and stress than on any other subject of psychology. Many of these also tackle self esteem since the two are inextricably linked, indeed this web site also has a section on assertiveness and self confidence. If you decide to go down the 'self help' route, I would recommend you first invest in one of these.
One of the starting points in tackling anxiety is to start to become aware of what it is you are really anxious about. This can be difficult to do on your own but keeping a diary of your symptoms and then noting what events or thoughts were happening at the time often helps. Becoming aware of triggering events may help you to make changes that help you deal with them. But how you deal with anxiety-provoking situations is important.
There are two key aspects of anxiety and you need to recognise and work with these. Firstly, avoidance. You will tend to avoid anxiety-provoking situations because this will seem like it is reducing the severity of your symptoms. The problem is it doesn't actually tackle the anxiety. Moreover, you can end up avoiding more and more of life. This is because of the second important aspect in tackling anxiety - the so-called 'generalising tendency'. Put simply, if we become anxious about one thing, and do not tackle it, we will slowly start to become anxious about other things that are related to it. Our anxiety can move from being triggered by specific situations or events to being triggered by a broader range of things in general. For a story that illustrates this principle, click here. (A new window will pop up that you can close when you have finished reading).
Once you know what is causing you to be anxious you can start to challenge it. Sometimes this involves slowly building up to facing it by gradually increasing your exposure, according to a timetable that you determine. You may also need to examine the rational basis for this anxiety, allowing yourself to notice that it is your interpretation or perception of events that is causing you to be anxious. Substituting 'unhelpful' ways of looking at things with more adaptive (or well adjusted) ones can make a big difference. Both of these things can be hard to do on your own and this is why many people prefer instead to seek the support and encouragement of a counsellor.
Possibly the most important thing you can do for yourself is to start to work with your body. Mind exists within body. If you are tense and physically stressed, you will feel and become stressed and anxious in your mind. So, remember that your body has its own systems in place to deal with stress - exercise! If you are unaccustomed to this, start gently at first. Try to make it fun - a walk over the hills in the country can help just as much as a trip to the gym and may be more pleasurable. If time is short, even a brisk walk round the block can help. If possible, try to make it something you enjoy and involve others as this will make you more likely to repeat the exercise. I always struggle to emphasise just how important exercise can be in tackling stress and anxiety - the effects of the endorphins have to be experienced to be believed!
There are also a range of relaxation techniques that can be incredibly helpful. Again, you will find these in the self help books or click here for a couple of exercises that I recommend to my clients. The trick here is to practise. Relaxation isn't something you do by not doing anything else. Relaxation is an activity in itself and to become effective at it you need to practise!
Finally, a few words about alcohol, probably the most common drug used to combat anxiety. It doesn't work. Sure, it may feel like it is working at the time but you are storing up problems for later. Alcohol, like many anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) drugs, works by blocking the brain cells responsible for receiving signals about anxiety. When the blockade wears off however, you can experience a sudden rush of anxiety. This is often the morning after or during the night and many drinkers report feeling particularly anxious as they wake. Alcohol affects your sleep patterns and so you will not be fully refreshed for the day after. This can mean you cope even less well, causing more stress and further anxiety and leading to a vicious circle of increasing anxiety and consumption. Moreover, alcohol can hasten the onset of the depression that can sometimes be associated with anxiety, or worsen it if it exists already. Back to Top More on Anxiety Information Index Page Home Page Contact Me
Dr Alan Priest, UKCP Registered Psychotherapist provides therapy for anxiety in Huddersfield and Halifax. Contact Me.
Page updated 25 March 2013.