Anxiety is part of the human condition, it is the name we give to sensations that arise when we detect a potential threat. It can be an actual threat or a perceived one and often it is vague unlike fear that is more specific. These felt sensations are activated by the brain’s release of chemicals energising the body to be alert and to prepare to run/leave or fight/defend. The parts of the brain that are activated when we identify a potential emotional or physical threat are called the amygdala responsible for the stress response and the hippocampus associated with memory. Another important area in the brain named the prefrontal cortex moderates this activation helping to control the fear. It’s a good system for when it works well, it catches our attention and our focus narrows so we can get on with the job at hand.
We all experience these normal reactions at times, however for people with an anxiety disorder this is daily or for long periods of time or without a known stressor. It becomes an overactive system that perceives danger at the slightest associations with an event of the past even if there is no real danger in the present so the body is constantly tense, anticipating and preparing for the worst case scenarios. This overactive system recruits survival responses and the nervous system becomes exhausted which in turn interferes with everyday activities such as sleeping, working or keeping socially engaged. It robs people from the joy of being alive.
Some signs that point towards an anxiety disorder are if you live most of the time in worrisome thinking with permanent tension in your body and if there is no actual threat or problem to solve in the present. To identify if there is a problem to solve or if worry is the problem you can ask yourself: ‘How possible or probable is the thing I am worried about likely to happen? If you cannot make a plan to follow to solve the problem then the first issue is worry. If there is a problem, a plan can usually be made even when it is something outside of your control such as planning to seek help or planning by setting aside a limited amount of time to think about the issue.
Worry takes on many voices:
Perfectionistic: ‘If I don’t manage every detail of this trip, look good at all times and be the perfect employee, something bad might happen and I could lose my job.’
Catastrophising: ‘If we drive with this bad weather, we will have an accident, get hurt and we will never be invited again.’
Procrastinating: ‘I don’t know how I am going to manage all this work, I have left it too late. What if I start now and don’t finish it on time for tomorrow?’
Obsessive:‘I can’t stop thinking about him even if I saw on Facebook that he is with someone else. I want to call him so he won’t forget me but what if he hangs up on me?’
Critical: ‘My father was right about me, I can’t do anything right… what if my wife leaves me?’
Panicking: ‘If I fall asleep I could have the same nightmares again and I won’t be able to cope.’
These are just a few examples and by no means simple statements, every one needs to be explored and understood in the context of the person’s life story to determine what action could be taken.
It is common to think that by getting rid of the cause the anxiety gets resolved but in reality learning to manage it is the most sustainable solution as worry can attach itself to anything.
It is natural to want to stop feeling uncomfortable sensations quickly by avoiding situations that may trigger those feelings or to discharge them by going into frantic action, both leading to anxiety generating cycles, insomnia and often depression.
The very good news is that there are effective treatments for different types of anxiety disorders ranging from psychotherapy and expressive therapies to relaxation techniques and anxiolytic medication. The goal of any treatment is to reduce symptoms and to help the person lead a happier life.
Part of talking therapy might be to help the person understand what happens in the brain and the body to help them respond differently to the sensations. Another objective in longer term therapy may also be to identify and understand deep unconscious emotional scenarios from the past that continue to manifest in the present.
If you experience ‘hard to cope’ anxiety or know someone who is, don’t hesitate to contact someone who can help.
Author: Diane Metta, Psychotherapist at InsideOut