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1000 words On Anxiety

(For clarification, this article is about anxiety seperate to depression, PTSD, or any conditions relating to an imbalance in brain chemistry).

Reading time: 4 minutes

This week I’ve been thinking about anxiety. What causes it? Is it a feeling? Is it thoughts? What is the difference between situational anxiety and general anxiety disorder? And most importantly what can we do about it.

My theory is that ANXIETY is FEAR rebranded, which takes me down a semantic road, what do each of the words mean? And how can defining these words help?

Fears are a thing to be faced or overcome. Whereas anxiety is described as a condition, something we have to live with.

Thinking to times when I’ve been afraid; public speaking, letting someone know how I feel, bungee jumping, to name but a few. Using the word fear gave me the impetus to keep going in spite of that feeling, the drive to beat the fear and do the thing that scared me.

I wonder though if that feeling had been defined as anxious, if I might not have been able to do any of those things because the onus of the word anxiety is on the person who feels anxious, it’s not that I was going to do a scary thing, it’s that I was too scared to do the thing.

And so, by my definition, fear is a response to an external force and anxiety is a state of being. The big difference between the two being choice.

We have choices as to how we respond to external forces e.g. it’s raining… will I a. stay inside or b. go out and get wet? These are simple choices that we are happy to hold responsibility for.

BUT… a state of being comes from inside, and more often than not we don’t know where, so our ability to choose doesn’t feel available. We assume the choice has already been made by our body which leaves us at the mercy of that feeling.

For many people, anxiety or an attack of anxiety begins with a physical symptom, you’re suddenly tense, breathless, your stomach is churning or you feel light-headed.

This used to be a very important stimulus response, it comes from the ancient part of your brain that tells you what to do when the sabre-tooth tiger is coming, fight, flight or freeze, and it’s meant to be acted on immediately!

Sightings of sabre-tooth tigers dropped dramatically around 10,000 years ago but the feeling persists and, in the absence of imminent danger, human brains react to the stimulus and kick into high gear as the world’s best meaning machines.

We work up stories to validate the feeling, I’ve upset someone, I’ve done something wrong,  e.t.c.* all of which compound the physical, anxious feeling, which triggers the ancient brain again and the spiral begins.

So here’s my manifesto, let’s bring back FEAR!

We can’t ever be rid of that ancient response (it’s important for human survival), but we can ask, “what am I afraid of?”.

In this way we can own the feeling and move forward with the strength to overcome our fears. Below I have defined 4 levels of fear with suggestions of what to do in the face of each one.

  1. Threat – fight, flight or freeze – do what you must to stay alive.
  2. Hurt – emotional pain, a break-up, grief – feel it and know that it will pass, speak to someone you trust or love.
  3. Stress – things are changing around you or you’re facing challenges you feel unsure you’ll be able to cope with – you are stronger than you think.
  4. Fantasy – imagined versions of the others – these will enter your brain as if they are real, the ancient part of your brain has no ability to discern imagination, it just responds with hormones, and the feeling will persist.

If you find yourself responding to 1 or 2, know you’re not alone, know that your body is doing the right thing and know that it will pass.

Number 3 will require some work, some reflection and possibly a dash of stoicism. Recognise the stress, list out the changes or challenges and go through each of them one by one and ask yourself: Have I dealt with something like this before? How did I do? Can I do the same thing again? Should I try something different? Or if you’re feeling out of control, remember the basic rule of stoicism, change what you can and not what you can’t. I remember this with a paraphrased version of  the serenity prayer “know what you can change, know what you can’t and act where you can.” even if the only thing you can change is how you respond.

If you’re at number 4 and you can’t break through, it’s time to do the really hard work. Breathe! 5 times. then sit with the feeling, find it in your body, give it a face, give it a name and speak to it, ask it what it wants, it might just want a hug, it might want YOU to tell it everything is going to be ok, it might even want to tell you it’s excited about what’s coming and it’s feeling misunderstood. Whatever it’s saying, give it a chance to speak and then you can CHOOSE what to do with it.

Higher brain function is quite simply cognition and behaviour, the ability to recieve and understand input then choose how to act based on that input.

When you feel your ancient brain kick in and you get that physical response, employ your higher brain, accept the input, understand it and choose how to act.

* Sometimes those things are true and we must own those things and make reparations to move past the uncomfortable feeling.

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References: Mel Robbins, Susan Jeffers, Dr Russell Kennedy, Michelle Poler