Understanding anxiety.

Photo by Tonik on Unsplash

Most of us have suffered with anxiety at some point in our lives.  It can be that horrible feeling that you get when you think of something that is worrying you or an unexplained breathlessness and a tightening in the stomach.  However anxiety manifests for you it can impact your day, your mood and your life.    But what is anxiety and why do we experience it?

Anxiety is often about fear of a predicted future event.  Evolutionary speaking, fear was useful to humans.  It helped us to survive! Fear teaches us to avoid situations, or to go into the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. This is the bodies way of helping us to run away, fight or shut down from a potentially life-threatening situation.  For example, if we step out in front of a car, we instinctively will jump back to avoid pain or death.  Our heart might be racing, our body is flooded with adrenalin and cortisol as well as extra blood supply going to some of our muscles; all of this is to jolt us into action.  

Adrenalin and cortisol are hormones that are released when we are under stress.  These hormones can be useful for activating us but too much stress is detrimental to our health.  It’s important to know that cortisol levels increase upon waking to push us into action.  Oftentimes, people report feeling more anxious in the morning.  Ways to combat this can be to take 10-30 minutes walking outside in natural daylight, take a cold shower (if you can handle it!) or spend 30 minutes exercising.  These activities all help to bring your cortisol levels down.

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Over the last few million years the more recent part of our brain has developed with what I will call the ‘thinking brain’ (the pre-frontal cortex or PFC) This part of our brain allows us to plan ahead, think ourselves out of problems and we also use it to try to predict eventualities in the future so that we can avoid potential pitfalls.  Our thinking mind needs accurate information for us to plan ahead based on predictions about how past events have gone.  When information is lacking our PFC will then imagine different scenarios to help us to plan.  This is where anxiety can step in.  

Let us think about anxiety and COVID.  When COVID first entered our world there was an explosion of anxiety.  We had no knowledge (and to a large extent still don’t) about what might happen.  This pandemic has never happened in our lifetime therefore, at the beginning, we had nothing to base future predictions on.  We immediately became uncertain and afraid and had to make difficult decisions based on limited information such as should we allow our children to go to school?  Would it be safe to travel to work on public transport?  Scientists have worked to understand the virus and have given us information that we can base our decisions on. There are certain actions that we have taken to eliminate some of the uncertainty and anxiety such as social distancing and mask wearing.

Unfortunately, with the age of the internet and doom scrolling we can suffer from information overload too.  Too much information can also create fear which in turns creates anxiety when our thinking parts of the brain try to sort through of all possible future scenarios.  “This website says there is a rise in variants.  This website says it is all a hoax.  This website says to be double vaccinated is to be safe…” etc.  The combination of our old brains (the survival instinctual part) and the new brain (the thinking mind) is the perfect fertile soil for anxiety to grow.  We need to survive therefore we plan ahead by thinking of every eventuality.  In many ways we learn to become anxious.  

In trying to predict future events and lessen our fear of the unknown we create imaginative scenarios.  We feel that we are taking control by planning for future possibilities, and this might lessen our fear a little.  A little of this can be useful; think about when you have a job interview coming up and you think about questions you might be asked.  You can then plan what you might say in advance, but we can’t know for sure exactly what will happen.  It can feel rewarding to take control and plan a certain amount. Our brains want more of this reward yet when we stop and think about it, what purpose is anxiety serving when we allow it to rule what we do each day?  What is it doing for us?   If we go further into anxiety, into panic, then our thinking minds go offline, and we can no longer use that part of the brain. So, what can we do about it?

Based on the knowledge that you have about how anxiety works wouldn’t it be perfect if we didn’t always think about what might happen in the future?  Would we feel as anxious if we lived in each moment based on the information that we held for that moment?  No guess work, no inaccurate predictions, no maybe’s and what-ifs.  The term ‘mindfulness’ is used a lot these days but there’s certainly something in this age-old practice.  Staying present takes focus. Our minds want to jump around like monkeys.  We remember the past, imagine scenarios, try to predict what a future conversation might go like and before we know it, we have driven 10 miles on autopilot without even remembering the drive.  Staying present sounds like it should be simple, but it isn’t.  It is pretty hard but worth the effort of practising it for a few minutes each day when you can.  This is particularly helpful when you are caught up in an anxious thinking cycle.  Here are the steps to helping yourself if you are.  This practice is called RAIN.  This is an acronym that stands for:

R – Recognise.  Recognise the feeling and name it in a curious and kind way, as if you were talking to a loved friend or family member.  “Oh, that tightness in my stomach and chest is anxiety.  It’s because I’ve got that big interview coming up and it means so much to me.  I’m afraid that I won’t get the job and I’ll make a fool of myself in the interview.  THAT’S why I’ve been feeling jittery today.”

A – Allow.  All too often we try to push our feelings down or tell ourselves that we are being stupid, that the feeling isn’t really there, or we use chocolate, alcohol (fill in the blank!) to avoid feeling anything.  This practice allows the feeling to arise within us. FEEL THE FEAR, SADNESS OR ANXIETY.  This is not easy and again, takes a certain amount of letting go.  It can be daunting to allow ourselves to feel if that isn’t something that we often do.  However, if you allow the feeling to be there you will find that it passes away quicker than if you push it back down.

I – Investigate.  Be curious.  Investigate the bodily sensations.  Where in your body are you feeling the emotion? Is it in your chest, your stomach, your legs?  What kind of a sensation is it?  A tightness, tingling, heat? Notice your thoughts in a curious way.  What are you saying to yourself right now?  Are you telling yourself an old story based on past events that is making you feel fear?  

N – Nurture. Be kind to yourself.  Treat yourself with kinder words “It’s ok to feel this way.  It’s normal.  It will pass.  We all feel like this from time to time.”  These kind of words allow us to accept that we are normal and human.  They give us space instead of the mental constriction that anxiety and fear can bring about.

There are many variations of the RAIN practice on YouTube for you to practice in times of anxiety.  If practiced, you will find that a natural curiosity and detachment from the anxiety can begin to help you to acknowledge that thoughts are simply thoughts and feelings come and go.

The key to being mindful is curiosity which allows for a detachment from our thinking habits. 

Another way that we can change our thinking habits and ease our anxiety follows on from the first step of awareness.  Once we are aware of what we are thinking we can progress to a variety of cognitive behavioural techniques (CBT) where we challenge our thoughts.  We can ask ourselves how true the thoughts are.  For example, “I bet the interviewer thought I was a right loser after giving that answer.  What an idiot I am.  I always mess everything up.”  These kinds of thoughts can make us feel anxious and depressed and can quickly spiral out of control.  Let’s examine what we could do about them:

1.  Thoughts are not facts.  We have millions and millions of thoughts each day.  Often, we aren’t even aware of them, but they can affect how we feel.  Take a step back and be aware of how these thoughts are making you feel.

2.  How true is it that the interviewer thought you were a loser?  Did he/she say that?  Are you a mind reader?  

3.  Do you ALWAYS mess everything up?  Can you think of a time when things went well for you?  Make a list of those times that have gone well.  Watch your thoughts and speech for words like always, never, and should.  These words used in this context imply black and white thinking. 

4.  The label of ‘loser’ is pretty harsh!  Can you describe yourself in less harsh ways?  Think of the parts of the interview that went ok.  How about, “My answer to that question could have been a little better however, my other answers were fine.  The interviewer seemed impressed when I said….”  Watch out for labels when you speak to yourself.

5.  Say that you did fluff the interview and it really didn’t go that well, as hard as it is, it can also be helpful sometimes to look for silver linings.  Maybe that job would have meant spending hours in morning traffic?  Maybe you and the boss didn’t really get on too great in the interview?  Maybe there were parts of your knowledge that was a little patchy and you might have been stressed out and out of your depth a lot?  

You see, we can always think differently.  I’m certainly not saying “Here’s a magic wand.  Wave it about a bit and everything will be rosy” What I am saying it that our thoughts can influence our emotions and behaviours.  Being aware of the thoughts, reframing situations and gradually changing thinking habits can all help to lessening our anxiety.

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