Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time.
It’s that feeling of dread or apprehension often accompanied by tightness in the chest, sweating, trembling and rapid heartbeat.
It’s often caused by some change in our lives over which we feel we have no control. It might be a new date, an exam result, or a work performance review. Or it could be something more serious – a major accident, illness or the death of someone close. It can last for weeks, even months. For most people, the anxiety fades once the event is over or the problem is solved. Sometimes simply the passage of time helps.
But sometimes, the anxiety persists and becomes much greater – even overwhelming – and it can be quite out of proportion to the situation. It can make normal, daily activities difficult or impossible. For these people, simple apprehension becomes an anxiety disorder. It might be brought on by specific situations such as heights, open spaces, closed spaces, or spiders.
For others, it follows a horrific event. Or there may be no apparent trigger at all.
The Fight/Flight Response
The response that occurs when a person or animal is in danger, or believes they’re in danger, has been called the Fight/Flight response.
This is a biochemical and physiological reaction the body undergoes when exposed to danger, and involves hormones like adrenaline and cortisol being released into the body. These hormones cause the heart to pump harder and faster and make the person more alert. The skin goes pale, breathing increases and the person may sweat.
The positive effect of all this is that the person is able to think more quickly, run faster, perform better and this helps them to escape from or fight the danger!
The Origins of Anxiety in Humans
The Fight/Flight response is actually an incredible achievement of our brains and physiology, and it developed back in a time when the early humans were confronted with dangers such as sabre-tooth tigers, invading tribes, and erupting volcanoes.
When the cavemen were confronted with dangers such as these, the human brain developed an effective system to help them run away from the situation, or stand up and fight it. Once the threat was reduced or eliminated, the symptoms of the Fight/Flight response would fade.
Unfortunately though, nowadays we don’t encounter many sabre-tooth Tigers, erupting volcanoes, or invading tribes. But the brain’s protection and threat detection system is so well-developed, it activates with our more common, modern threats, such as conflict with workmates, traffic jams, paperwork, social situations, and public speaking.
It is counter-productive to punch out the boss (the fight response) when s/he activates our fight or flight response (even though it might bring temporary relief to our tension!). It is also counter-productive to run away from the boss (the flight response) when s/he activates our flight response.
This all leads to a difficult situation in which our automatic, predictable and unconscious Fight/Flight response causes behavior that can actually be self-defeating and work against our emotional, psychological and spiritual survival. This is when anxiety can become problematic.
How we Respond to Anxiety
There are three types of responses when someone’s fight/flight response is activated, which are Body Responses, Acting Responses, and Thinking Responses.
1. Body Responses or Physiology
When our brain detects a threat, our bodies experience a number of changes in response. These can include:
- An increase in heart rate and strength of heart beat – this enables blood and oxygen to be pumped around the body faster, which in turn can help us run or move faster.
- An increase in the rate and depth of breathing – this means that more oxygen, which is necessary for fight or flight, can be taken into the body. You may start to sigh, yawn, or notice breathlessness, choking or smothering feelings, tightness and pain in the chest. This response also reduces the blood supply to the head, and whilst this is not dangerous, you might feel dizziness, light-headedness, blurred vision, confusion, feelings of unreality, and hot flushes.
- A redistribution of blood from areas that aren’t as vital to more important areas – such as away from skin, fingers and toes, and redirected towards large vital organs. Your skin might look pale or you might feel cold, or there might be a feeling of numbness and tingling in your fingers and toes.
- An increase in sweating – this causes the body to become more slippery, which makes it harder for a predator to grab, and it also cools the body, preventing it from overheating if you were fleeing from danger.
- Widening of the pupils of the eyes – which lets in more light and enables you to better scan the environment for danger. You may notice blurred vision, spots before the eyes, or just a sense that the light is too bright.
- Decreased activity of the digestive system – this allows more energy to be diverted to the fight/flight systems. A decrease in salivation may leave you with a dry mouth, and decreased activity in the digestive system may lead to feelings of nausea or a heavy stomach. If necessary, excess waste is eliminated to make you light on your feet.
- Muscle tension – this is in preparation for fight/flight and results in feelings of tension, sometimes resulting in aches and pains and trembling and shaking.
- The tiny blood vessels (called capillaries) under the surface of your skin close down (which consequently sends your blood pressure soaring) so you can sustain a surface wound and not bleed to death.
- We become hypervigilant, which is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviours whose purpose is to detect threats – this enables us to scan and search our environment, “looking for the enemy”.
The whole physical process is a comprehensive one that often leaves the individual feeling quite exhausted. So even if you haven’t actually done any fighting or running, these responses alone can leave you feeling as if you’ve run a half marathon!
2. Action Responses or Behaviours
When we feel anxious (or when we EXPECT to feel anxious) we often act in some way to control our anxiety. One way might be keeping away from certain situations, such as social situations, public speaking, or from sitting exams. This is called avoidance.
Avoiding situations may reduce anxiety in the short term, but it is likely to have some less helpful long-term effects. Sometimes it stops people from doing things they would like to do, or achieving certain goals.
A second Action Response may be to behave differently. For example, you may say nothing because your mind has “gone blank”, you may keep your head down because your face is red, or you may shuffle around in your chair because you feel uneasy.
Another behaviour that you may exhibit due to your anxiety is related to the Fight part of the fight/flight response. Instead of avoidance, your anxiety response may lead to an impulse to fight the perceived danger. This can result in angry outbursts towards family, friends, co-workers, or unleashing on inanimate objects around your room or office. Even though fighting a danger may have been adaptive back when it was fighting an invading tribe, or fighting off a sabre-tooth tiger, it really isn’t very helpful when we take out our anxiety on those close to us!
3. Thinking Responses or Cognitions
There are a number of thinking responses or cognitive changes that are associated with anxiety:
Firstly, as a normal part of the Fight/Flight response, we begin to shift our attention to our surroundings and search for potential threats. This is a helpful response in physically dangerous situations, but not so helpful when dealing with threats which are more psychological in danger (such as exams, high workload, arguments with friends etc).
Other cognitive changes that you may experience could include:
- Over-estimating the chance that negative things will happen (eg “I’ll make a mistake when I’m talking to people”).
- Over-estimating the cost of negative events that might happen (eg “if I make a mistake, everyone will think I’m useless”).
- Irrational thinking – by its very nature, the Fight/Flight system bypasses our rational mind, which is where our more well-thought out beliefs exist. Instead, we move into “attack” mode, and this causes us to see almost everything in our world as a possible threat to our survival. As a result, we may overreact to the slightest comment.
- Narrow focus – fear becomes the lens through which we see our world, and this means that we may not notice helpful/supportive behaviour from someone else, because all we see are enemies and threats.
Some or all of these responses may be familiar to you – and they can be used so often that they become a familiar way of life, a habit you don’t really think about.
However, it is possible for you to unlearn the “anxiety habit” and build new habits to better handle your worries, stress and fears. If you would like to find out more about handling anxiety, please make an appointment to see me.
Author: Lauren Burrow, B Psych (Hons), Grad Cert Health Promotion.
Brisbane Psychologist Lauren Burrow endeavours to provide her clients with a welcoming, reassuring and non-judgmental experience. She assists her clients to identify helpful strategies to overcome their issues, to broaden their existing skills in coping and functioning, and provides them with psycho-education to assist with understanding and managing the symptoms they are struggling with.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Lauren Burrow, freecall 1800 877 924 or book online today.