Anxiety Part 1 – What is it?

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Today I want to talk about anxiety.

I have permission from a long term client who I have known for a number of years, who very kindly agreed to let me tell a little bit of her story. She has battled anxiety for quite some time and she was telling me how the other day she was noticing something going on with her that made her worry that she was going to have a panic attack.

I’ll tell you a little bit more about that later, but first I want to tell you about what anxiety is. What is it that we’re talking about when we talk about anxiety? It’s a word that we use a lot. Sometimes we use the word anxiety when we are really talking about feeling nervous or when we are really talking about feeling worried. But anxiety from a clinical psychology perspective is something quite specific. We are talking about something that can be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder, which is where the anxiety has continued over a significant period of time, persists across a range of circumstances, and is so severe that it affects the individual’s capacity to live a happy and healthy life. So, what is anxiety?

If we go back in time for a moment to caveman days, as a species we were all about survival. We were concerned with looking for shelter, looking for food, and fighting off predators. So as a species we developed a number of survival instincts, one of which was the fight or flight response. The fight or flight response is an automatic survival instinct coordinated by the amygdala, a little part of the brain no bigger than an almond. The amygdala is right in the middle of our brain, among the oldest parts of our brain.

When the amygdala detects that you are in some kind of danger, it will kick into gear an automatic response that gets your heart beating faster and gets your breath faster and shallower. Those two things together (the increased heart rate and the faster shallower breathing); are all about getting freshly oxygenated blood to the big muscles in your legs and arms so you can fight or run and increase your chances of survival. It’s a really cool system that we’ve got going on in there! It shuts down your digestive system temporarily, because all that energy is required elsewhere in your big muscles. It sharpens your vision and your hearing so that you are really tuned into what is going on in your environment, looking for further sources of threat, looking for escape options.

That fight or flight reaction operates on a hair trigger. We don’t have to decide to kick it into gear it just happens when you are in danger. Going forward in time, back to the modern world, imagine you are crossing the road and a car comes screaming round the corner. The next thing you know you are on the other side of the street, you almost don’t know how you got there. That’s your fight or flight reaction kicking into gear, giving you that big shot of adrenaline and boosting those other systems into action. And there you go, you’ve taken action without even thinking it through. So as you can see, the fight or flight response is actually quite healthy, because it is aimed at increasing the chances of survival. Pretty cool, don’t you think?

Now in the modern world, we don’t have quite so many life and death situations as we might have had in caveman days, so we are not fighting for our survival on a daily basis. So over the course of our evolution, our amygdala is still geared towards detecting threats but sometimes makes a mistake and if you’ve experienced trauma in your life, your amygdala is even more attuned to any possible threat and gets a little over-protective, making it more likely to make a mistake.

How can the brain make a mistake? Well, the amygdala isn’t part of our “thinking brain”, it sits among the inner parts of the brain responsible for automatic functions. All our more complex thinking, decision-making and problem solving happens right at the front of our brain in the prefrontal cortex. (Remember, your amygdala is tucked away right in the middle, which is a very old part of the brain.) So the amygdala isn’t in the business of weighing up pros and cons, it acts on instinct, so to speak.

For example, imagine you’ve just been given a big shock – someone jumps out behind you for a joke, or you get a nasty phone bill, or something else unexpected or frightening happens that might give you a jolt. The amygdala might misinterpret this “shock” as a “threat” and mistakenly kick that fight or flight reaction into gear. Suddenly you’re feeling hot and flustered and your heart is racing, you can’t catch your breath and you start feeling overwhelmed. Some people describe it as feeling like they’re choking or that there is an elephant siting on their chest. When you are feeling any of these symptoms and you are not in a life or death situation, that’s the fight or flight reaction having kicked into gear at the wrong time. Your amygdala has made a bit of a mistake. And that is what anxiety really is. It is that fight or flight reaction kicking off in the wrong moment, in the absence of real danger.

Some people who have experienced trauma or those who are very sensitive individuals, may be more prone to that anxiety response being kicked off in reaction to otherwise benign things. Someone with social anxiety might feel overwhelmed by panic when invited to a party. Someone with a history of physical assault might feel completely overwhelmed by panic when walking to their car at night. These are understandable responses when we understand how anxiety works, within the context of the fight or flight response.

Getting back to my client who was talking to me the other day and was quite happy for me to share this example with you. She has worked really hard over the years that I’ve known her to get on top of her anxiety symptoms and she really has come so far. I am very proud of her and I have told her that. She described a recent episode where she almost suffered a panic attack. The other day, she had a coffee and wasn’t aware that it was a double shot instead of a single shot. So she got an extra boost of caffeine in her system all of a sudden and that increased her heart rate. As she was walking down the street she noticed her heart starting to pound and then she noticed that her breathing was starting to get a bit funny as well and she started thinking “oh my goodness am I having a panic attack”.

Panic disorder is a specific anxiety disorder marked by fear of having a panic attack. This fear can drive that anxiety response higher and higher, spiralling all the way up to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such that the fear of a panic attack actually makes one happen.

My client was smart, she was able to quickly backtrack in her mind what had happened that morning and realized that it was probably the coffee that had triggered her symptoms. So she was able to bring those symptoms back under control.

Anxiety won’t hurt you in itself, it only feels awful. Now I have had one panic attack in my life and that occurred while I was overseas, I was two thirds of the way through a pregnancy. It was hot, it was summer time and I was having to climb a three story escalator that was broken. So I went inside a plastic tube on the outside of the building. If you’ve ever been to Paris. This is where I had my one and only panic attack.

So I was hot, I was pregnant, I was in an enclosed space and then having to climb. I was about half way up and of course it didn’t matter whether I kept going or went back down as I still had a long way to go in this hot tube. My breathing became shaky and overwhelmed and I couldn’t catch my breath, and of course being pregnant makes it a lot harder to catch your breath too. So I knew what was happening, I knew it was a panic response, I knew why it was happening. But those symptoms—being unable to get my breath back under control—those symptoms overwhelmed me and there I was poor old pregnant me in the middle of a plastic tube on a broken escalator outside the Pompidou center in Paris sweating and in tears.

So there’s a little bit of information about what anxiety is… There are various anxiety disorders that I could talk about but I just thought to give you today a general overview of what anxiety is, what the symptoms are. They are frightening if you’ve experienced some—they are frightening and we certainly understand that. Experienced psychologists and mental health social workers would acknowledge that anxiety is the main thing that we work with. So if you feel anxiety symptoms you are not alone, a lot of people experience it. It is very, very common and we will be more than happy to help you if you need some help with that.

Hope you are having a great day today. Don’t forget to check out our website for that free mental health checkup if that’s something that interests you.

Look forward to talking to you again soon.

Best wishes,

Connect with me on LinkedIn

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Tess has a passion for mentoring new psychologists. She also has a strong interest in supporting executives as they juggle the balance between leadership and new parenthood. You’ll see Tess regularly speaking on our Facebook pages and our YouTube channel. Her mission is to provide as many free resources to the community as she can, so her videos offer tips and strategies that might be helpful to you. Read Tess’s full Bio here.

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