Anxiety is a human survival mechanism from way back, meant to keep us safe from any dangers.
As such it is a normal part of life that everyone will have experience at some stage. You are not alone.
One of the most common explanations of anxiety is that it helped keep the cave people safe. If they heard a particular noise then anxiety would activate and they would go into fight or flight mode, running from or fighting the animal, fire or other threat that would hurt, eat or kill them. They would deal with this immediate stress and go back to being in a relaxed state once the threat was over. (O’Kelly, M. 2010).
Although these days we are not generally worried about animals attacking us and our camp, we still have anxiety activated for all sorts of reasons, even though our safety may not be in immediate threat or danger.
In modern days, we tend to have stress that comes along and hangs out with us for a while as it is hard to shake. These days we might have stress responses to the following, but certainly not limited to: work; daily living; finances; relationships; family; friendships and our sense of self. (O’Kelly, M. 2010).
Therefore our modern day bodies can get stuck in the stress response as we are dealing with these situations all at once or one after the other, which can limit our opportunities to relax.
Additionally, these days we may not find ourselves directly in a stressful situation, however when we think about the past or upcoming stressful events we can keep the stress going or create even more stress. (Daviu, N., Bruchas, M. R., Moghaddam, B., Sandi, C., & Beyeler, A, 2019).
The amygdala is located at the base of the brain and is often referred to as our ‘reptilian brain’. This is because this part of our brain is in charge of survival such as regulating fight, flight, freeze, feeding and fear (Liu, W. et.all 2020).
The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system and plays a key part in how we process strong emotions such as fear.
The amygdala operates unconsciously and can be triggered very quickly (to activate fight or flight). This is because it is linked to the emotional part of the brain where we can feel fear before we understand what it is we are fearful of, and why. (Daviu, N., Bruchas, M. R., Moghaddam, B., Sandi, C., & Beyeler, A, 2019).
In modern days even though we are not threatened by the same things that the cave people were, our internal alarm system and anxiety responses have changed and activate for other reasons – such as when who we are as a person and how we fit in is threatened.
Fight or Flight Response (you don’t get a choice)
There is no conscious choice whether fight or flight is activated, whichever one the body feels is the best option to keep you safe will be activated. These responses prepare us for action by our bodies becoming highly alert, stronger to fight or run away faster than we would normally be able to.
When these responses are activated, the sympathetic nervous system is called to action, releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream. This means our heart beats faster delivering more oxygen to the muscles, which then become tense and ready to fight. It would be very difficult to run or fight with relaxed muscles (O’Kelly, M. 2010).
Our breathing becomes rapid and shallow which also increases the supply of oxygen to the blood.
Our digestive system slows down in order to redirect energy to our muscles, making them hyper aroused and in some cases the body may need to empty the bladder and / or bowels to gear us up for an intense fight or flight.
We can also sweat more as this helps to keep our muscles cool for when they need to work hard.
With all of this, we are more alert to our surroundings, hypervigilant (trying to process everything that is around, scanning for all threats) and preparing for the physical action of fight or flight to keep us safe from the threat.
Hyperventilating is a common symptom with anxiety in the modern day. Back in the cave days, this function helped increase the oxygen around the body to prepare for fight or flight, they would be moving and using the extra oxygen and energy in that fight or flight action. (O’Kelly, M. 2010).
Modern days, we find that we still hyperventilate however this is problematic as we generally are not running around and exerting that additional oxygen and energy.
So what happens here is that the oxygen builds up in the body and carbon dioxide decreases, which is what causes that feelings of dizziness and light headedness. Therefore we think that we cannot get enough air when really, we are getting too much.
Our fight or flight responses can be triggered for many different reasons as everyone’s life journey and experience varies.
Anxiety that is the result of a threatening circumstance can become generalized to other situations associated with something or anything else that reminds us of the original circumstance. This is how we accumulate more triggers for our anxiety that may not entirely make sense to us, as these things were not directly involved in the original situation.
When Anxiety Becomes Problematic
Anxiety becomes problematic when we notice that it is impacting our ability to function on a daily basis, and our capacity to engage in a quality of life; when we notice the fight or flight responses being triggered although we are not under threat.
For some people, consulting with a GP or Psychiatrist for medications may be helpful to regulate the release of the chemicals associated with anxiety.
CBT for Anxiety
Cognitive Behaviour Therapy looks at how we think about a situation and how that affects how we feel, and therefore how we behave.
For example, a person may be having a number of thoughts along the lines of ‘If I go to the gym and don’t know what I’m doing, I will look like an idiot and people will judge me’. As a result, this person may be feeling anxious, vulnerable, scared, insecure, overwhelmed, inadequate, inferior, worthless, nervous, exposed and more.
They may also be experiencing some of the physical symptoms discussed earlier.
The desired behaviour with these thoughts and feelings is to avoid this stressor and retreat. Once that decision has been made and the perceived threat has gone, the physical symptoms will decrease and will return to a (more) relaxed state.
This cycle is problematic as the more we avoid doing such activities, the more we are likely to avoid in the future as we feel we cannot cope with such unpleasant emotions.
Therefore addressing how we think about a situation (and ourselves in that situation), and the more skills we learn to cope with uncomfortable feelings, the more activities we try or engage in and we become stronger because we learn that we can do this.
Building up skills such as distraction techniques, problem solving, exposure, breathing, relaxation, mindfulness, progressive muscle relaxation (Bandelow, B., Michaelis, S., & Wedekind, D, 2017) and more will help you build mastery and be your own boss, rather than anxiety being your boss.
Aleah Haffenden is an Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, working primarily with young people (aged 15 and up). She takes a client-focused approach, using a mix of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), tailored to their specific needs.
To make an appointment with Aleah Haffenden, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422 or M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.
- Bandelow, B., Michaelis, S., & Wedekind, D. (2017). Treatment of anxiety disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 19(2), 93.
- Daviu, N., Bruchas, M. R., Moghaddam, B., Sandi, C., & Beyeler, A. (2019). Neurobiological links between stress and anxiety. Neurobiology of stress, 11, 100191.
- Liu, W. Z., Zhang, W. H., Zheng, Z. H., Zou, J. X., Liu, X. X., Huang, S. H., … & Pan, B. X. (2020). Identification of a prefrontal cortex-to-amygdala pathway for chronic stress-induced anxiety. Nature communications, 11(1), 1-15.
- O’Kelly, M. (2010). CBT in ACTION: A Practitioner’s Toolkit. CBT Australia.