Anxiety can be frightening when you don’t understand what’s happening. Knowing more can be reassuring, give you insight and means that you can begin to take control of anxiety.
In this article I’m going to talk about the how and why you feel this way and what you can do about it,
What’s the difference between anxiety and stress ?
Stress is mostly external. While you can cause yourself stress with negative self-talk, a pessimistic attitude, or a sense of perfectionism. It’s usually triggered by something external such as too many responsibilities.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is more internal. It’s how you react to stressors. If you remove the stressors and still feel overwhelmed and distressed, you’re likely dealing with anxiety.
What’s the purpose of anxiety?
It can be hard to believe if you suffer from it but anxiety is an absolutely normal reaction to a threat. However, it’s happening when you don’t really need it to, you just get frightened at the wrong times.
Anxiety comes in two forms – ‘signal’ and ‘noise’.
Signal anxiety is a genuine fear and a threat or danger that needs you to listen to it and act, usually a prompt to get something done or remove a risk.
Noise, on the other hand, isn’t a response to a real threat, it just feels that way. It’s when you ruminate or go over and over things in your mind, worry about what people think of you or about things that may happen in the future.
To understand why this came about we need to look at how our brains evolved.
Homo sapiens, earliest man, are approximately two hundred thousand years old. These were the first humans to have a brain similar to ours. In particular, the neocortex—the newest part of the brain and the region responsible for higher functions like language, planning, decisions—was roughly the same size two hundred thousand years ago as today. We’re all walking around same hardware as our Palaeolithic predecessors!
These humans lived in what is known as an ‘Immediate Return Environment’. If you lived then stress and anxiety were useful because they would have helped you take action in the face of immediate problems – signal anxiety.
- A lion appears across the plain > you feel stressed > you run away > your stress is relieved.
- A storm rumbles in the distance > you worry about finding shelter > you find shelter > your anxiety is relieved.
- You haven’t drunk any water today > you feel anxious and dehydrated > you find water > your anxiety is relieved.
This is how your brain evolved to use worry, anxiety and stress. Anxiety was an emotion that helped protect humans in an Immediate Return Environment. It was built for solving short-term, acute problems. But the kind of problems we face today are not like that. We live in a ‘Delayed Return Environment’. Threats these days involve paying bills, relationships, how we look, being stuck in an unrewarding job, and so on.
This change in our environment only happened in the last 100 years or so, and from the perspective of evolution 100 years is nothing. The modern human brain spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving for one type of environment (immediate returns) and in the blink of an eye the entire environment changed (delayed returns).
The mismatch between our old brain and our modern environment is why we experience high levels of chronic stress and anxiety today.
What’s happening when you get anxious?
When we see something as a threat the amygdala, an almond shaped structure in the brain which regulates emotions, triggers a response. The body releases adrenaline and cortisol, stress hormones. These were designed, all those thousands of years ago, to prepare the body to fight the threat, run away or freeze to hide from it then rest.
But in modern life our stress response is triggered over and over and we don’t return to a resting state.
Look through the full list of symptoms of anxiety and stress below and circle the ones you typically notice on a fairly regular basis:
Effects on your body
- a churning feeling in your stomach
- feeling light-headed or dizzy
- pins and needles
- feeling restless or unable to sit still
- a fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat
- sweating or hot flushes
- problems sleeping
- grinding your teeth, especially at night
Effects on your mind
- tense, nervous or unable to relax
- having a sense of dread, or fearing the worst
- experiencing the world as speeding up or slowing down
- thinking that other people can see you’re anxious and are looking at you
- feeling like you can’t stop worrying, or that bad things will happen if you stop worrying
- worrying about anxiety itself, for example worrying about when panic attacks might happen
- wanting lots of reassurance from other people or worrying that people are angry or upset with you
- rumination – thinking a lot about bad experiences, or thinking over a situation again and again
- feeling disconnected from your mind or body, or like you’re watching someone else or even the world around you
- worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future
Sometimes it might be difficult to work out whether your symptoms are totally related to anxiety, or might be related to a different illness. If you’re experiencing any physical symptoms it’s best to talk to your GP, so they can check out what may be causing them.
“I constantly thought I was dying of undiagnosed illnesses, because I was convinced that the physical symptoms were too bad to be ‘just anxiety’.”
Begin to take control of anxiety
First of all notice the boundaries of your anxiety because you won’t feel anxious all the time, even though it may feel that way.
This might sound counter-intuitive but begin to tune into your anxiety – when it’s here and when it isn’t. When you recognise how you feel you can take control of anxiety instead of it controlling you. But first you have to get to know it.
Over the next week or so make a note of when and why you feel anxious by answering the following questions:
- When was it?
- Who were you with?
- Where were you (environment)?
- What triggered your anxiety (e.g. darkness, noise, people, bodily sensation, tiredness, memories, criticism etc.)? If you find this hard, don’t worry, the moe you do it the more you’ll realise your triggers.
- How did you behave when you were anxious, e.g. did you drink alcohol, exercise, eat, withdraw, lash out, etc.? None of these are ‘wrong’. They are just ways you’ve adopted to cope – treat it as simply more information and don’t judge yourself for behaving this way.
- How strong did it feel on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the strongest it could be?
After a few days see if you can see a pattern. Is there a similarity between the times when you feel anxious?
When you know the how, where and when you can begin to take control of anxiety. There are many ways to do this. One way is deep abdominal breathing, also known as 7/11 breathing which you can practice whenever you recognise that you are getting anxious.
How to use the breath to begin to take control of anxiety
Place a hand on the belly, just below the belly button. This is the area where you will be breathing into.
- Breathe in through your nose to a count of 7 – this is your count not seconds so it can be as slow or as fast as you want, according to your lungs.
- Then pause and breathe out to a count of 11.Again this is your count and at your speed.
Pause and then breathe in again to the count of 7, pause and breathe out to the count of 11, pause and repeat. Make sure you relax your shoulders while you are doing this and if 7 and 11 are too long for you then reduce the count to 5 and 9 instead of 7 and 11.
The important thing is breathing into your abdomen and making the outbreath longer than the inbreath, that’s all. Don’t strain or tense up.
When you are breathing in imagine inflating and deflating a balloon in the abdomen so that you feel your hand rise and fall.
You can also add to this by imagining breathing in calm and breathing out tension.
Or having a word you say to yourself whilst you are breathing out, such as ‘Calm’ or ‘Peace’.
What else can you do?
If your anxiety is becoming overwhelming and seriously affecting your life then consider getting some help. Finding the right therapist for you is really important, that’s why I always insist on a discovery call before working with anyone so that we know that we are the right fit for each other.
“Hazel taught me various strategies on how to manage anxiety, difficult emotions, and insecurities, such as the fear of rejection, and feelings of loneliness and boredom. I am now confident that I have skills to handle a whole range of challenging situations. As with all learning, it takes practice, but I can honestly say that I am already experiencing the benefits. Hazel goes above and beyond to ensure that you feel fully supported and her sessions were certainly worth every penny.” Sarah, Bristol.
Don’t let anxiety ruin your life, take action today and speak to me about how I can help. Life’s too short to waste time worrying.
Or read more about working with me here.