What is anxiety?Anxiety is good for you. Wait, what? Strange as it sounds, anxiety is part of a sophisticated inner defense system, intended to keep you safe. We experience anxiety in situations that are dangerous or we think could be dangerous. Anxiety generally involves a number of elements:
- emotions such as fear and dread
- physiological changes such as increased heart rate, more rapid breathing and tense muscles
- thoughts and worries and mental images about something bad happening in the future
- a strong urge to avoid situations where you might experience anxiety.
Taken together, these factors are sometimes referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response because they are part of a survival mechanism intended to help you fight danger or run away from it as quickly as possible. In a life-threatening situation, it is your anxiety that enables you to maximise your focus and your physical strength so that you can survive.
The problem with anxiety
But for many of us, anxiety is not the good guy all the time. How is it that a useful survival mechanism can become distressing and can begin to limit our lives? Here are some of the reasons:
- For some of us, anxiety becomes triggered in situations that objectively aren’t dangerous. Like an over-sensitive warning system, we start to experience anxiety when the likelihood of threat is actually very low – a ‘false alarm’.
- Many of today’s ‘dangers’ involve situations that aren’t life threatening. This is a good thing of course! But it means that our ‘fight or flight’ response gets triggered when we are in stressful (but not dangerous) situations and we don’t really need anxiety to stay safe. Becoming very anxious is not so helpful in situations such as a first date, an important work meeting or a birthday speech.
- One of the problems with anxiety is that it’s so unpleasant to experience. The emotions, the sensations and feelings in your body, and the distressing thoughts are in themselves hard to cope with. This means that we can start to become fearful and worried about becoming anxious – a ‘fear of fear’ reaction which can be a destructive vicious cycle.
- Avoidance is one of the big reasons that unhelpful anxiety stays around. It makes sense to avoid situations that cause you anxiety, but what if the thing you are avoiding isn’t objectively likely to cause you harm? It means that you never get the chance to find out what would have happened. and you miss the opportunity to learn that you could have coped with it and been okay. The more you avoid the more you have to avoid.
- Let’s face it, feeling anxious is unpleasant. For some people the ways in which we try to avoid the feelings of anxiety start to become a problem in themselves. Examples include: using alcohol to help you get through social situations; overeating or smoking to quell anxiety; compulsively checking that you’ve locked the house; or repeatedly asking others to reassure you that what you worry about won’t come true.