What is anxiety?
Anxiety goes by many names – nervousness, feeling scared or timid, worried, stressed…
But what is it, and what is going on in our body when we are feeling anxious?
To understand anxiety, we need to understand the way our brain works. Think of your brain as if it is made of two parts: the “upstairs” part of the brain, called your cortex, and the “downstairs” part of your brain, made up of the limbic system and the brain stem.
The upstairs part of the brain, the cortex, is the smart part. It’s involved in thinking and planning, learning, making decisions, reflecting on our experiences, and keeping ourselves calm and regulated.
The downstairs part of the brain is more primitive. It’s where our emotions and survival alarm systems live. The downstairs part of the brain takes charge if we think there is danger, by preparing us for fight or flight.
For example, when humans were cavemen, it was very important for our brains to be able to quickly switch into survival mode to run away from sabre-toothed tigers or fight off a dangerous predator. When we’re in fight or flight mode, our downstairs brain sends a message to the rest of the body to get ready for danger. Our heart starts racing to pump blood to our limbs so we can fight or run away quickly. We start breathing quickly to get more oxygen into our blood. We get sweaty so that if a predator grabs us, we can slip away more easily. We get tummy aches as our downstairs brain starts to shut off things that aren’t important to survival right now, such as digestion. If this sounds familiar, it’s because what we know as ‘anxiety’ is our fight-or-flight response activating.
Importantly, the upstairs part of our brain gets turned off when we are in fight or flight. It’s not important to know how to play chess or solve math problems if we’re running away from a bear! Our thoughts get muddled and cloudy, and we find it harder to make rational or smart decisions. We can tend to be more emotional and find it harder to control how we’re feeling.
Our stone-age brain was incredibly useful for keeping our ancestors alive in dangerous times. However, even as modern humans, we still have the same brain that seeks out danger and responds by going into fight-or-flight mode. We still have the same neuro-programming and the same responses (heart racing, sweaty palms, jumbled thoughts) to things that we find dangerous. It doesn’t have to be physical safety either. As cavemen, it was important for our survival to be with other human beings. If we were an outcast, this could impact our ability to find enough resources to survive – and so things like being liked or accepted by a group were important to our survival.
Recognising what triggers your anxiety
Sometime our brains aren’t very good at knowing what is actually dangerous, and we can feel anxious about a whole range of things. Sometimes we have developed beliefs about the world, like that people are always bad or untrustworthy, which makes us feel psychologically unsafe. Specific trauma experiences may also make us prone to feeling anxious in certain situations, as our brain constantly seeks out danger that has happened previously.
For example, we may become focussed on situations which we perceive are a threat to us like fitting in or being judged by others. We might feel anxious towards things that feel out of our control. We may feel stressed or nervous if we believe that we cannot cope with the demands placed on us in our daily lives. Other common triggers for general or social anxiety might include:
- Giving a speech in public.
- Talking to a stranger.
- Our performance in social situations, such as the worry that people won’t find us attractive, interesting, or funny, or the fear that we might ‘say the wrong thing’.
- Upcoming tests or assessments.
- Doing something new for the first time.
- Going somewhere we’ve never been before.
- Medical procedures, like getting a needle.
What to do when you experience anxiety
While anxiety is a normal experience for most people, where anxiety becomes a major focus what might you do?
In the moment, strategies to reduce intense anxiety or feelings of panic are those which help our brain switch out of fight-or-flight mode and get our upstairs brain back in control. Short-term strategies to help can include:
- Taking deep, slow breaths, which slows our heart rate down.
- Gently and systematically stretching the muscles in our body, which helps release tension.
- Drinking a glass of cool water or having a snack, which turns our digestive functions back ‘online’ and tells our brain that we are safe (or in ‘rest-and-digest’ mode, the opposite of fight-or-flight).
- Deliberately thinking reassuring and positive thoughts, such as “I’m safe” or “I can deal with this”.
- Being around someone we trust who helps us feel safe, such as a parent, friend or family member.
- Children in particular can find it hard to calm down by themselves and often need a trusted adult to help them feel safe again, with lots of reassurance and support.
And how do psychologists help?
In the long term, anxiety can be reduced when we challenge our beliefs about things we find psychologically dangerous. Psychologists help people to test how accurate their beliefs about the world are, incorporate self-soothing strategies in their daily routine, and learn new ways to interpret events that typically induce feelings of anxiety.
- In cognitive-behavioural therapy, psychologists help their clients to challenge their beliefs about the world and do behavioural experiments to see how likely somebody’s fears will actually come true.
- Mindfulness therapy supports people to focus their thoughts on the here and now, rather than get stuck in the past or present.
- EMDR therapy involves eye movement and recalling past traumatic experiences to help “re-wire” the brain.
- Exposure therapy asks clients to gradually expose themselves to things that they find anxiety-producing, to help develop new ways to cope with uncomfortable feelings.
If you struggle with anxiety, book in with one of our friendly psychologists today at… www.revivehealthandhappiness.com.au