Anxiety is one of the most common mental health conditions of our times.
Most of us will experience some level of anxiety at some point; others however, live for many years with intense and severe anxiety.
Although it is a treatable condition, it does need an assessment by a mental health professional to understand:
- Where it is coming from?
- What triggers it?
- When did it start?
- What keeps it there?
- As well as other information to help understand that individual’s unique experience of anxiety at that point in life.
In severe cases, when anxiety stops a person from living their life and engaging in meaningful activities, medication is prescribed.
Medication may be helpful to reduce the intensity of the experience, take the edge off and help the person to function better. However, as the famous saying goes, “pills do not teach skills”.
Therefore, it is important to supplement medications with psychoeducation about what anxiety is, as well as cognitive and behavioural strategies to help manage it. These strategies are worked on during therapy, to choose the most effective ones for each person.
Nevertheless, anxiety does not need to be a scary experience. When we understand what it is, we can better manage it and prevent it from affecting our lives in negative ways. Basically, we can learn to reduce it and learn to live with it, even if it does not go away completely. Yes, this is possible!
So What is Anxiety?
Let’s go back in time for a moment ….
When our ancestors went for a leisurely walk out of the cave and saw a bear, they did not have much time to think. A certain neurological response called ‘fight / flight / freeze’ kicked in, and without much thinking, they were either fighting or running to save themselves.
Therefore, on a very basic level, anxiety is the activation of the fight / flight / freeze mode, when we feel we are not safe (whether physically, socially, or emotionally). This is what we feel, and usually refer to, as experiencing anxiety.
Instead of running or fighting, it is sometimes more useful to freeze, stop or avoid action – for example, when you see a venomous snake near your leg, or when you are in a dangerous social conflict. Therefore, some people are more prone to get more energy and feel more reactive, even aggressive (the ‘fight’ element). Others are compelled to escape or leave the situation (the ‘flight’ element). While still others will feel paralysed and unable to act, respond or even move (the ‘freeze’ element). One is not better than the other; all survival responses are equally valid and were useful to preserve our species and survive (we are here, aren’t we?).
How is the Fight/Flight Response Helpful?
When we perceive something as a threat, it triggers the fight/flight response, and a sort of alarm bell is switched on in our brain.
The brain then starts sending alarm signals to the whole body asking it to mobilise the troops and prepare for attack/defence. A large amount of stress hormones are released into the blood stream and the whole body goes into a tense and highly aroused state.
In this state all the organs and systems change function. The heart starts pumping more blood that goes to the muscles (this was very useful when we needed to run away from that bear, remember?), eyesight sharpens or becomes blurry (we need to block every detail that is not essential for our survival), the mouth goes dry, stomach turns (digestion is switched off … who needs to eat when a bear is running after you, right?), muscles tense, breathing becomes shallow and difficult, along with many other changes. Each person may feel a different set of symptoms, when their fight or flight response activated.
The main thing that the body is trying to achieve is to help us get to a safe place, protect and survive. It is trying to help. This is important to remember. The fight/flight mode is not meant to hurt us, it just feels scary and unpleasant. And it helped us survive as a species.
Nowadays, we don’t have bears roaming the streets, but our brain and nervous system activates the same ‘alarm’ when we think of a stressful thing in our life (past, present or future). For the brain, it is exactly the same old bear.
Managing the Anxiety Response
One of the most important strategies for managing the anxiety response is reassuring self-talk.
When you feel that your body’s alarm system (fight/flight) has activated, and you start feeling the unease in your body, assess the situation!
- What is making you feel unsafe in the moment?
- Are you at risk?
- Is there a threat?
If there is, do whatever you need to ensure your safety. The excess energy of the fight/flight mode will help you take the necessary action to get help or get to a safe place. If your response is the ‘freeze’ mode, just wait it out. Remember, this is what the fight/flight mode (or anxiety) is designed for, to help you.
If, however, there is no obvious threat in the environment and you start feeling anxious, it is very likely that the trigger was internal. Some thoughts or memories may have been triggered and your system went into this highly aroused mode. Whatever the reason, if you decide there is no immediate threat in your environment, start to diffuse with reassuring self-talk.
You can do this by reminding yourself:
- that this feeling is temporary and will pass soon;
- that this is a normal protective response of your mind-body;
- that it cannot hurt you;
- that your mind-body is trying to help you (remember, the old part of your mind can still feel the chasing bear);
- that you can tolerate it, even if it feels unpleasant;
- that like any other strong feeling or sensation, you just need to ride the wave. Surf it, until it subsides.
This is the first important step for managing the anxiety response of your body. Know it, feel it, accept it, normalise it.
Then you can move on to the nest step, which is helping your body to calm down and get the nervous system back to the ‘calm mode’. Various relaxation and grounding techniques exist to help you do that, which you will find in my other article Living with Anxiety 2: managing anxiety.
Important Note: when anxiety and stress response is chronic, ongoing, and doesn’t change throughout during the day (ie always in the background with no start and finish points), an assessment by a mental health specialist is required as well as therapy and sometimes medication for treatment.
If you need help with understanding and managing your anxiety, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Author: Ilana Gorovoy, B.Arts (Psych), B. Arts (Hons.)(Psychology), MPsych (Couns.)
With a Master’s in Counselling, Brisbane Psychologist Ilana Gorovoy draws on therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Existential and Strengths-based approaches, Person-Centred and Positive Psychology, to assist her clients to become conscious of their strengths and difficulties, design and reach their goals, live a life of meaning and purpose, and reach their full potential.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Ilana Gorovoy, try Online Booking – Wishart. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology (Wishart) on (07) 3088 5422.