Anxiety- what does it mean to you?
As with most disorders, anxiety covers a wide spectrum In general terms, you might rate it from low level anxiety about being late for work to extreme anxiety resulting from a severe trauma. However, you ask a hundred people what anxiety means to them and you will get a hundred different answers. The impact anxiety has on our wellbeing is often hugely underestimated and misunderstood by those who have never experienced it and that includes health professionals. I have come across GPs, therapists, nurses and others, who seem to have little idea what it’s like to experience severe anxiety. I do understand that if you haven’t experienced it, you may find it difficult to understand, however, empathy and acceptance of another’s experience is key. As someone who has experienced it, I can honestly say that at it’s worst, it can be one of the most terrifying and lonely experiences. Can I also say here and now that it is not all in the mind!
Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream sums up for me the terror and fear that anxiety can create in our mind and body.
Anxiety – good or bad?
Although we might not always welcome it, anxiety is part of who we are as human beings. It’s there to protect and help us avoid unnecessary risk or danger. If we never experienced anxiety at all, we wouldn’t survive for very long. Of course, there are people who seem to thrive on adrenaline hits and constantly take risks eg stunt men/women or people who engage in extreme sports. However, imagine what the world would be like if we were all adrenaline junkies who risked our lives every day; all systems need a counter-balance and so it’s important that some human beings are more cautious and risk-averse. It’s only when the anxiety response gets out of hand and prevents us from living a normal life, that it becomes an issue.
Do you see yourself as a worrier and generally more anxious than not? You may know people who never appear to experience much anxiety at all. That’s not necessarily because they’ve learned how to get rid of it, but more possibly because it isn’t in their nature to the same extent. You could say that they have a higher tolerance threshold. For those of us who feel that we’ve been anxious for most of our lives, it’s possibly because we were born that way, so have a lower tolerance to it i.e. genetic inheritance. Sometimes the root causes can go back to our childhood. If we experienced a distressing event, which imprinted itself on our memories, similar situations in the present can produce the same reaction of fear and stress. It becomes more tricky, when we have no memory of the trauma, but it continues to cause anxiety in the present. I’d just like to add at this point, that you may be one of those people who experiences anxiety, but who manages not to show it in front of others.
The Brain and the Survival Instinct
As far as the brain is concerned, anxiety is linked to the stress response which originates in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. Amongst other things, the amygdala co-ordinates our stress response to situations which might a pose a danger or risk to our wellbeing. You might know it as the flight or fight response. The release of chemicals can give very real physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, shallow breathing, sweaty palms and “butterflys” in the stomach. These symptoms are designed to give us the ability to ‘fight or flee’ a specific danger, however a panic attack sufferer can feel these feelings intensified and with no present danger. This is an unconscious automatic reaction which stems from our ancestors’ survival instinct. Although most of us rarely have to face down a wild bear or wolf these days, we still need that response in certain situations, such as walking through a field of cows and suddenly seeing a bull amongst them. The amygdala is also responsible for:
- Emotional Responses
- Hormonal Secretions
*So bad memories from childhood can result in a learned stress response when we find ourselves in similar situations as adults.
It might go back even further to before we were born. Why is this? Well, recent research shows that the unborn baby can be affected by it’s mother’s stress/anxiety during pregnancy. It has been shown that more cortisol is passed through the placenta into the baby’s bloodstream if the mother is anxious and stressed. We are still at the beginning as far as reserch on this topic is concerned, but it is food for thought. Now I don’t want you to think, “Oh well, it’s all my mum’s fault and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Far from it – however it might help you to understand why you might be more anxious than some of your friends or family.
Read my next blog on “Managing Anxiety – Taming the demon within”
See below for useful therapist directories:
www.bacp.co.uk (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy)
www.babcp.co.uk. (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies)