What is Anxiety?
There is no single answer to this question, because different authorities have different views.
I prefer using the term anxiety to refer to the actual and perceived changes in the body that occur as a result of the autonomic nervous system's (ANS) responses to inner conflict.
This definition encompasses both the physical bodily changes which occur when our brain discerns a risk to our well-being, and also the emotions we feel which we may label as anxiety, and which result when we perceive the effects of the bodily changes.
Does anxiety prevent you from living normally?
Consider talking to your GP or a local qualified therapist for guidance and help.
Some authorities use the term "anxiety" to refer specifically to fears of an imagined or anticipated danger. I prefer using the term to apply to the actual and perceived changes in the body that result when the subconscious mind intends us to be "ready" or "on our guard".
I feel that whether anxiety results from actions, thoughts or imaginations is of little consequence. It is the subconscious reaction to whatever is going on in the brain at the time that generates the anxiety response, and it will then be felt in the body to varying degrees depending on the nature of the underlying internal conflict.
When you approach the edge of a high ledge, your brain assesses the risk to your well-being and may initiate a fear response so that you have plenty of energy and through hypervigilance become aware of the danger. As you become consciously aware of the bodily changes you will feel more and more afraid. If you move away from the drop,your anxiety level falls again as the brain assesses the risk to have diminished.
It is possible for some people to consciously overcome the intense anxiety and complete the action they intended (e.g. jumping from an aeroplane with a parachute) , but for many others, the anxiety will feel too intense for them to even consider overriding.
An ancient response used for handling modern fears
The anxiety response is an ancient solution for improving survival in many species of animal, and it often works well with short-term emergencies like defending against attack or avoiding potentially dangerous situations. The response takes place in two phases, with the second phase only being required if the threat cannot be resolved during phase 1.
The initial process (phase 1) operates predominantly using the hormones adrenalin and noradrenalin - but is only efficient for relatively short periods of time (up to about 20 mins). If the danger can be diminished, so will the degree of preparedness and anxiety. But if the anxiety cannot be resolved during phase 1, the immediate body readiness has to be maintained using less efficient bodily processes operating largely through the secretion of cortisol and related hormones (phase 2).
Ironically though, if the threat persists - maintaining the secondary state of readiness gradually undermines the health and general efficiency of the body. The subconscious tries to compensate, but anxiety will tend to build gradually over time as a result.
This is because an anxiety loop is maintained by the body as long as the threat or danger persists, and energy is gradually sapped by the effort of maintaining the availability of extra resources. The reduction of energy over time can lead to loss of self-esteem and confidence in the individual, and if persistent may begin to move clients toward depression. All of these increase anxiety levels further and weigh heavily over time.
Unlike phase one, healing responses are stimulated in the body during the anxiety loop, and other life dependent processes which had been switched off are re-activated (e.g. digestion).
Persistent anxiety is an indicator of an unresolved fear, and the fear may or may not be consciously known.
If we know the nature of the fear that makes us anxious, we have a very good chance of being able to resolve it ourselves.
But where we cannot link the anxiety to its true cause, we may feel the constant anxiety gradually wearing us down.
Anyone who experiences persistent anxiety, should seek help from someone. Friends or family may help, but if you have a persistent state of anxiety - whether you show it or hide it - if it has stolen the joy from your life, and you are unable to make progress in resolving it, you really should consider seeking help.
If you feel that you have issues which cause you persistent anxiety, stress or fear and you are unable to improve matters, then please:
Consider talking to your GP or a local qualified therapist for guidance and help.
How can I tell if I have anxiety?
Do you often find yourself agitated, or wondering why things seldom go the way you want?
Do you feel concerned and notice your heart beating faster than usual without the normal physical stimuli for this being present?
Is your breathing rhythm faster than usual most of the time, and are the breaths that you take much shallower? Does it literally feel as though your chest is being constricted?
Do you get a sinking feeling, or cramps in your stomach at the thought of having to do particular things etc?
Do you fear doing, or not doing, certain things - simply because of what might, or might not happen?
Frequent feelings of negativity or unexpected agitation at minor things may also indicate a mild but persistent anxiety.
If you want to try and spot the cause of the anxiety, look for the ebb and flow, the rising and falling of the anxiety, worries or concerns over the next week or so.
Remember the example of fear of heights - as we approach the edge of the cliff our anxiety increases and we become hesitant and doubtful, then as we back away anxiety decreases again and we start to feel more comfortable.
This is exactly what the fear/anxiety loop evolved to achieve: "STOP - Reduce the danger !". by using whichever of the three standard fear responses (Freeze, Fight, Flight) are necessary.
If you are aware of any feelings in your body, thoughts, or behaviour that increase at certain times making you feel agitated, upset or concerned, and which then decrease again (maybe a while later) bringing a degree of relief - you might be perceiving the signature of anxiety.
I feel the anxiety, but don't know why.
If you recognize the anxiety as above, but have no idea what the causative concern is, then try to recall as much as possible from both your surroundings and your mind at the time the anxiety began increasing in intensity, and when it began decreasing in intensity again.
Note down everything you can - what you said, thought, and felt, what others said, what you saw on TV, out of the window etc. Did you have any strange reactions to any other events that occurred at the time?
If the anxieties are felt fairly often, try and make notes on several occasions and compare them for similarities and differences.
You may be able to hone in on the underlying concern with such information. Tell your therapist what you find.
The anxiety loop
This is the second phase of the anxiety response – and as the subconscious mind constantly reviews the threat and maintains this second phase until resolution, this is the anxiety loop.
The loop is "check the threat - if not present return to normal functionality and stop monitoring - otherwise maintain extra resources - repeat the whole sequence."
Resource availability is maintained at a lower level than phase one, and is achieved largely by the secretion of cortisol, but unlike phase one, healing responses are also stimulated in the body and other life dependent processes which had been temporarily switched off in phase one are re-activated.
There are many symptoms and feelings that can be perceived in this phase, but they are all consequences of the brain's attempt to maximize resource availability to deal with the threat, while also trying to support the long-term viability of the body.
Once the threat or danger has been “resolved”, the anxiety loop will wind down and return the body to normal processing.
The logic of the anxiety loop could be thought of as "check the threat - if not present return to normal functionality and stop monitoring - otherwise maintain extra resources - repeat".
It is a simple kind of loop, similar to a homeostatic loop, but here the response is not a direct action to re-balance the situation, its more of a long-term investment supporting the search for the action required to re-balance the situation.
Unlike phase one, healing responses are stimulated in the body during the anxiety loop, and other life dependent processes which had been switched off are re-activated (e.g. digestion).The anxiety response is always generated subconsciously, but the increasing sense of anxiety that follows, leaves the conscious mind in no doubt that something needs attention. In the scenario described above, we would usually understand why we felt anxious, but on other occasions we may not understand the anxious feelings at all.