What is anxiety?
We all feel anxious some of the time, it’s part of our natural survival kit and designed to kick in when we’re under threat to keep us safe. But sometimes it fires too much or at the wrong times and gets out of control. The results can be as disabling as any physical illness.
If this is happening to you, you may be scared, puzzled, annoyed, frustrated and just sick of feeling this way. The unknown can be very frightening so I hope that by helping you to understand what anxiety is and why you feel anxious it’ll take some of the fear out of it for you.
There are three parts to anxiety – the physical sensations you experience, the emotions you have while experiencing the sensations and the thoughts that go through your mind at the time.
It’s effects can be wide ranging; overwhelming, unrealistic fears or worry, panic attacks, phobias, obsessive compulsive behaviours or post-traumatic stress reactions are all examples of anxiety running riot. It isn’t always as dramatic as this, for some it’s more of a low grade continuous anxiety which makes you feel like life never be normal again. Either way it can be miserable and distressing.
So what does anxiety feel like?
I don’t know why you feel anxious because everyone has their own reasons but I’ll give you some examples of typical scenarios.
See if you recognise yourself in any of these.
You wake up every morning with a feeling of fear or anxiety, your heart’s pounding, maybe you feel a fluttering in your stomach, and it’s hard to breath. You feel scared but don’t know what you’re scared of. Your stomach churns or there’s a suffocating fear wrapped around your throat.
You know there’s nothing to be fearful about, you’re just in your bedroom, the sun has come up and all should be well and you don’t know why you feel anxious. You get up and get on with your day but you still have that dreadful feeling that the fear will come back again, out of the blue or maybe that feeling of impending doom just stays with you.
Maybe you look perfectly normal and you get on with life but you don’t feel fulfilled or happy or don’t feel part of life, like you’re not really involved.
You often find it hard to settle to things because of constant and intrusive thoughts with worries and concerns, particularly about what others think of you and whether you are ever going to be good enough.
Sometimes your mind just goes blank and you struggle to focus and concentrate. It’s like your brain’s shut down.
If procrastination was an Olympic sport you’d be in for a gold!
You are crippled by perfectionism, so much so that you either don’t start projects or you don’t finish them. And you worry too much about things. You’re so convinced you must do things perfectly that you often fail to start to finish them.
You have trouble falling asleep because of incessant thinking or you wake up in the early hours and struggle to get back to sleep.
Sometimes you’re going about your normal day when you suddenly feel yourself panic for no reason. Your heart starts to pound, you’re sweating and shaking, struggling to take in enough air, feel like you’re choking, dizzy and faint and spacey, as if you’re outside of yourself. It can be so strong that you feel like you’re going to die. The doctor told you there’s nothing wrong but that doesn’t stop it happening and you just dread the next time it happens. You might know the reason it happened the first time, and perhaps it was quite logical to have been scared, but now it happens at the slightest trigger. Or you might not know why it started which makes it even more scary as you are not sure when it’s going to happen next.
You have rituals you have to do to keep you safe, to stop this from happening but now they rule your life and they don’t really work but you can’t stop doing them.
Perhaps your anxiety started after you were a victim, or witnessed or told about something really distressing and these upsetting images now keep flooding into your mind or you’re having nightmares. You don’t feel like yourself anymore, you’re always on alert, vigilant, never relaxed, your relationships are suffering as you feel distant with people and you’re often angry and irritable.
You’ve developed a ‘nervous’ stomach, suffer a lot of headaches, muscle pains or something you already have like psoriasis or eczema gets worse.
You find yourself comfort eating to try to quell the feelings, but this makes you put on weight and then you hate yourself. Or you binge drink just so that you can function socially otherwise you’d be too scared to go out but the hangovers and the shame the next day can be crippling. Maybe you are smoking too much and you know this is damaging your health, making your clothes and hair stink but it seems to help, in the very short term.
So these are some of the many ways anxiety can affect people, and this isn’t by any means all of them, but there’s something common to them all – it rules your life and gets in the way of you being happier.
We can never completely get rid of anxiety, because it is essential but we can learn to manage it so that you can get on with your life.
Why you feel anxious all the time
Everyone has their own triggers for anxiety but it can be hard to know what they are sometimes.
Let me explain what’s going on when your anxiety is triggered.
The amygdala is a part of our ‘emotional’ brain that has the sole mission in life to keep us safe. To do this it scans our world every second of the day and if it detects a threat it takes charge and overrides our ‘thinking’ brain. If you like, think of it as having an on/off button to turn off the thinking brain.
There’s a good reason for this. Imagine if you were walking down the road daydreaming and not paying attention and a bus began to career out of control, mounting the pavement and headed straight at you. You wouldn’t want your thinking brain to be in charge because while it was pondering why the bus is on the pavement, what is the safe braking distance of a bus, is it a film stunt … you would probably be under the bus and dead. So the stress response, which is the system that pours out adrenaline and cortisol to make you react quickly, damps down the thinking part so that the fast, reactive part can take over. We need that panic so that we can jump out of the way of the bus. So sometimes panic is the right response, sometimes.
Where it often goes wrong is that the amygdala learns and stores memories. So, if you were scared or felt threatened by something it’ll lay that incident down as a threat. It’s constantly checking if anything matches this threat and, if it does, in even the smallest way, it sets off the stress reaction and your anxiety kicks in.
Strong emotions make us stupid. Our emotional brain is completely in charge, working on little information but with very powerful emotions. That’s why often the reason for your anxiety may seem really illogical and silly to you but to your amygdala it makes perfect sense. For example, if you’ve ever walked into an exam room and your mind has gone blank you’ll know what this feels like. It could have been that you were worrying about the exam and imagining it not going well, or perhaps in the past you had a bad experience of sitting exams so the amygdala has laid down exams/exam rooms/authority figures/exam room smells etc. as a threat and then when you go into a similar situation it pattern matches and fires away.
And it’s being triggered all the time by threats in everyday life because as its pattern matching is so crude it is looking for broad similarities, not detail so it can’t tell the difference between an event we’ve been worrying about in our imagination and one that’s really happened. It sets off the alarm bells regardless.
So can you turn anxiety off?
Well you wouldn’t want to get rid of anxiety completely, it’s there for a purpose but what you probably do want to do is dial it down so that you can manage it; so that it doesn’t hijack you, embarrass you, frustrate you and hold you back.
The good news is that contrary to popular belief our memories are not set in stone and our minds are very ‘plastic’ that is they can be changed. We can go back and ‘reframe’ or change the memory triggering the anxiety so that the amygdala doesn’t have that pattern match to go back to.
It’s much easier than you think.
When I work with clients I use powerful techniques to make the event that used to trigger that reaction appear differently to the amygdala. Remove the trigger, remove the reaction.
It no longer sees it as a threat. Then you can learn other techniques to build confidence and mange emotions in the moment.
A real life example of this is a lady I know who had a problem with confrontation and speaking out or defending herself in an argument. She’d had this issue for as long as she could remember. The idea of sticking up for herself made her very anxious and even gave her panic attacks. This meant that she had more than her fair share of bullying and it really affected her confidence and her self-esteem. No one likes to think they’re a door mat.
Using the techniques I mentioned above we went back to the first event connected to the issue which was when she was a small child. She was too young to have processed the incident in a helpful way and so we reframed it with the knowledge, wisdom and maturity she now had. She ‘taught’ the little girl she had been at that time that she could let go of the issue. By doing this she was able to let go of the trauma and fear connected with being assertive.
So what can YOU do?
It’s possible for you to manage your anxiety in a more helpful way. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve suffered. I know this is true because I had anxiety for years before I realised what it was. When I did, I learned all I could about it, I trained in anxiety and stress management, I worked on myself and I learned techniques, strategies and methods to manage anxiety. I now manage my anxiety really well. Despite facing some pretty tough challenges in recent years I didn’t fall apart or suffer from the levels of anxiety I once did. So I know this stuff works. And now I can help you too.
Want to know how you can be free of anxiety?
If you would like to know if this could work for you why not book a complimentary ‘Life Beyond Anxiety’ call with me to discuss what it is you would like to achieve and how I can help. In the call we can begin to look at what mastering anxiety would mean to you, uncover what is keeping you in that anxious state and talk about how you can be free of anxiety.