Many people who suffer from anxiety symptoms often feel overwhelmed by their experience. Anxiety is a feeling of unease, worry, or fear that can be either mild or severe. Although you may feel alone in your experience with anxiety, everyone has feelings of anxiety from time to time or regularly in their lives. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people experience significant feelings of anxiety at some point. Stress and anxiety are part of life, and increasingly so, especially during times of uncertainty.
Anxiety is one of the most powerful emotions. It has a very powerful effect on your body and mind. It is a natural reaction to a threat. The experience of anxiety is very similar to the experience of fear – the main difference is that anxiety occurs in the absence of real danger. That is, the person may think they are in danger, but in reality they are not. For example, think of the anxiety you may feel when walking alone down a poorly lit street at night.
There may be feelings of anxiety due to a perceived threat from a potential danger. This does not mean that there is actually a danger on that street, but the feeling of fear is caused by the thoughts or beliefs that there is a danger. Therefore, the experience of anxiety and fear are very similar in experience, except that in the case of anxiety, there may not be an actual danger – the person only has thoughts or beliefs that there is.
Feeling fear is part of the experience of being human, it is a normal, natural reaction and occurs in response to a realistically expected danger and is therefore our survival instinct.
For example, if faced with a wild animal, we would likely react with fear. This reaction is important because it triggers a whole series of physical and behavioral changes that ultimately serve to protect us. In this example, the feeling of fear when confronted by an animal would likely cause us to either run for our lives or develop enough energy to physically defend ourselves. This reaction is called the fight/flight response
Fight or flight response
It is important to fully understand the way our body responds to a real or imagined threat or danger. When a person is in danger or believes they are in danger, a series of changes occur. When confronted with danger, we typically flee the situation, or we stand up and fight. The main purpose of the fight/flight response is to protect the individual. When a person’s fight/flight response is activated, three main systems are affected. These are the physiological, cognitive, and behavioral systems.
We experience the physiological aspect of anxiety as sensations in our body. These can include a racing heart, shallow breath, lightheadedness, clammy hands, restlessness, fatigue, trembling, muscle tension, or a “lump in the throat,” as well as headaches, stomachaches, backaches, and a variety of other stress-related medical problems.
The cognitive aspect of anxiety shows up as worried thoughts about the future-imagining worse case scenarios and thinking about ways to avoid them.
The third aspect of anxiety involves avoidant behavior. Not surprisingly, we try to avoid situations that bring on unpleasant physiological reactions and painful thoughts. So when we’re anxious, we often start to limit certain areas of our lives, avoiding the activities and situations that we expect will make us more anxious. Short term this can offer some form of release, but unfortunately, in the longer term this generally makes matters worse.
When you experience fear or anxiety, your body and mind work very quickly, to protect you from the ‘threat’.
These are some of the symptoms you may experience:
Increased heart rate – may feel irregular
Hot and cold sweats
Breathing very quickly
Muscles feel weak or tense
Stomach cramps or loose bowels
Loss of appetite
These things occur because your body, detecting fear, is preparing you to react to the situation, so it makes your blood flow to the muscles, increases bloody sugar and switches your mind to focus only on the thing that your body perceives as a threat.
Longer term anxiety issues may also include, becoming irritable, having difficulty sleeping, developing headaches, difficulty concentrating or planning for the future, you may also have experience low self-esteem or loss of confidence.
Why do I feel like this when I’m not in any real physical danger?
Our ancestors needed this fast physiological powerful response as they were often in situations of physical danger, in order to survive they needed to respond in this way. However, we no longer face the same threats in modern day life. Despite this our body and brains still work the same way as our early ancestors to more modern day worries such as money concerns, health issues or social situations.
What can help?
Fear and anxiety can affect all of us, and it’s important to acknowledge that feeling anxious during this time is normal, natural and expected. You may already have some useful tools to deal with anxiety such as mindfulness, relaxation, breathing exercises, diffusing from difficult thoughts, now would be a good time to increase these. If not, perhaps consider now might be a good opportunity to learn some, visiting a psychologist can support you with this.
If you feel anxious or worried a lot of the time or you’re finding it difficult or stressful to carry out your daily life and routines, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor and/or see a psychologist to ask for help.
Talking therapy such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have been proven to be very effective for people experiencing anxiety difficulties. CBT helps you to understand how your problems, thoughts, feelings and behaviour affect each other. It can also help you to question your negative and anxious thoughts, and do things you would usually avoid because they make you anxious. A clinical psychologist will be able to talk with you about the best and most suitable approach for you and your situation
Medication can be used to provide short-term help, rather than looking at the root of the problem. Drug treatment may be most useful when combined with psychological therapy.