Anxiety is the mind and body's alarm and survival mechanism and is a way of responding to being in danger. When anxiety kicks in adrenaline is rushed into our bloodstream to enable us to fight or run away – otherwise known as ‘fight or flight’. This is our normal biological response to feeling threatened. Our primitive brain also plays a huge part in creating anxiety (depression, anger, OCD etc). Anxiety can kick in whether the danger is real, or our thoughts are out of proportion with actual danger. Even when we just think we are in danger, that's enough to trigger the system to go, go, go; the ‘flight or fight’ response is automatic. People who get anxious tend to get into scanning mode - where they're constantly on the lookout for danger, hyper-alert to any of the signals, and make it more likely that the alarm system will be activated.
Our thoughts have an impact on our feelings (emotions) and behaviours. Negative thoughts that may occur can often relate to our overestimating or exaggerating the actual threat and underestimating our ability to cope:
I will never be able to cope with this situation
I just can't do this
It is the worst thing that has ever happened
I will not get that job
Every negative thought we have is converted into anxiety. We create anxiety by negatively forecasting the future (the big and the small). The mind cannot tell the difference between imagination and reality! Have you ever ruminated over a work meeting you will be attending the next day and how it is going to go wrong or how you think someone is going to react to a situation and be extremely angry. You will maybe think about it 50 times? The meeting might go well or the person might react in a positive way, however you have attending 51 meetings or had 51 conversations and 50 of them would have been disasters. Are you beginning to see how we create our own anxiety at times without realising it?
We also experience physical sensations when anxiety kicks in. Again, this is our bodies way of helping us to energise ready for the ‘fight or flight’. The physical sensations we may feel might include:
A pounding heartbeat – this helps to take the blood to where it might be needed most – the legs for flight and the arms for fight. The blood is taken from places where it is not needed most for example, finger, skin, toes, which is why you may feel a tingling or numbness sensation.
Feeling faint / Chest Pains / Feeling unable to breathe – our bloodstream carries oxygen to the arms, legs and lungs to give us more power. The side effects may include feeling faint, chest pains, dizzy and blurred vision.
Sweating – it helps us cool the muscles in the body by stopping them overheating.
Nausea (feeling sick) – our digestive system slows down to save energy. The side effects are nausea, butterflies in the stomach and a dry mouth.
Shaky limbs, or feeling like your legs are turning to jelly – our muscles tense to create power.
Spots in your eyes – our pupils dilate which lets more light into our eyes so our overall vision improves. The side effects may include sensitivity to light or spots before our eyes.
Concentration – we become more alert looking for danger and less able to concentrate on other things.
Other mental and physiological effects such as TICs (Tourette's Syndrome), compulsions and/or obsessions (OCD), bruxism (teeth grinding), depression... the list really does go on.
During a panic attack you might feel very afraid that:
You’re losing control
You’re going to faint
You’re having a heart attack
You’re going to die
You don't understand why you are feeling this way
Anxiety attacks can last between 5 and 20 minutes and can come on very quickly. Please note if any other physical or mental effect kicks in a person may be in that state for hours and sometimes days; it really can be debilitating.
If you suffer from anxiety attacks your behaviours may include:
Not going out / avoiding people, places and things that cause the anxiety
Being specific about what you do, for example only going out shopping when it’s less busy or only going shopping with another person
Locking yourself away from everyone / not wanting to talk
Using safety behaviours such as not speaking to a certain person, using passive aggression, smoking or drinking more than normal, substance abuse, self-talk (constantly talking to yourself in your head)
Running away from a situation that may cause you anxiety
Believing things that are not real (certain situations become real due them becoming unhelpful habits)
Safety behaviours can also help to keep your anxiety going. Whilst you depend on them to help you cope, you don't get to find out that without them, the anxiety would reduce and go away on its own. If you have certain triggers that kick off anxiety time and time again, we then instil a habit. You may not know at a conscious level why you are feeling anxious.
Whilst avoiding people or situations might help you feel better at that time, it doesn't make your anxiety any better over a longer period. If you're frightened that your anxiety will make you pass out or vomit in the supermarket aisle, you won't find out that won't actually happen, because you don't go. So the belief that it will happen remains, along with the anxiety (we are creating unhelpful habits without being consciously aware of it - I know I keep repeating myself).
We all feel anxious some times. A certain amount of anxiety helps us to be more alert and focused. For example just prior to an exam, a few exam nerves have a positive effect - motivating us, helping us focus our thoughts on the job in hand, and making us more alert. Too much anxiety, or constantly being anxious, is unhealthy and detrimental to our lives and relationships.
More next month I'll be talking about how you can spot anxiety then some tips on how to help yourself the month after.
If you would like to talk to me about your anxiety please feel free to book an initial consultation.
Much Love Jo xxxx