What is Anxiety?
Put simply, anxiety is a fear of a future event.
This fear can occur because of previous experiences that have been negative, a new experience that you can’t control or an experience that is normally fine but somehow you suddenly become scared of it going wrong.
Anxiety is both a mental and physical condition. The mental aspect in anxiety is the mental fear of something and this comes about because of negative thoughts. The physical aspect is the symptoms of anxiety which rage from slight heart rate increase and butterflies all the way through to panic attacks and fainting (vasovagal syncope).
Why do we get it?
Our brains have evolved to react fast in situations that may be dangerous to us. We have a part of our brain called the amygdala which can set off our body’s danger response in a split second. This danger response is now well known and is commonly called the fight or flight response.
What the amygdala does is also stimulate a part of our brain called the hippocampus which helps our brain to learn and to form memories.
At some point our cortex will get involved and start to assess the situation to see if there is any danger. If there is no danger then the prefrontal cortex will send a message to the amygdala to chill. In theory this should stop our body’s response however it can sometimes take a little time.
Please note: this is a very simplified version of the neuroscience.
This is why anxiety is not stupid
From an evolutionary point of, overreacting to possible danger is more likely to keep us alive than not reacting to possible danger.
Let’s face it, if we were mooching around a jungle looking for food then it would be beneficial to be a bit anxious. There might actually be something out there that could kill you.
BUT we don’t live in a jungle…
I hear what you are saying, there is no place for anxiety in our vastly safer developed world where we forage at supermarkets for food!
Maybe, but the neurological structures are there and it will take us a long time to evolve further.
So, Anxiety today:
When we are dealing with anxiety that would be considered a more modern day anxiety, for example a fear of something that we know is not life threatening, we are looking at what is causing the amygdala to fire off our body’s response.
This is where we start talking about a perceived fear.
When we think negatively about the event or thing we are anxious about, we are creating a fear that our brains interpret as a potential danger to life. Our brains are well equipped to deal with a potential danger to life very, very quickly.
Decide anxiety is OK
By understanding what anxiety is we can start shifting our mindset about how debilitating it is. If you can become aware of your own anxiety and what you say to yourself that causes it then you can have a lot more control.
I still have anxiety about situations. I gave a talk in June at the Super Self Summit and definitely had a small amount of anxiety about my performance.
When you ask yourself, what am I trying to protect myself from? then you can start to understand how to control it.
Impact of anxiety on our actions
So far I have explained how thoughts activate an extremely old self preservation process in our brains so what usually happens next? Most people with anxiety try and avoid the anxiety as much as they can. There are other actions but avoidance is the main one, others include substance abuse and engaging in comfort activities such as over eating.
By being in this cycle of thinking something bad is going to happen, feeling anxious and then avoiding the situation we end up in a negative spiral that essentially sensitises us to the symptoms of anxiety. Thus over time, people generally make their own anxiety worse.
Time to be brave
Anxiety is not your enemy, it’s trying to help you in a weird backwards and not massively helpful way! Find a way to challenge it and fight back. I learnt to treat mine like an over protective friend:
Me: I’m going to do a presentation!
Negative thoughts: What if you look like a massive tw*t???
Anxiety: I WILL SAVE YOU FROM LOOKING LIKE A TW*T!!!
Me: Thanks Anxiety but I think its worth the risk and I also plan to practice my presentation until I am confident I can deliver it well. If it does go wrong then I shall simply learn from the experience and deal with it at the time.
Negative thoughts: Oh, that’s a good plan.
Anxiety: Fair enough, I’ll be here if you need me.
This is a bit of fun but also how my brain works. My other little tip is to sing “I aint afraid of no ghost” as per Ghost Busters…