Anxiety – The beauty and the beast
Welcome to our very first post! For our first blog we decided to talk about one of the most common issues that people come to therapy for at Therapy Central: Anxiety.
Anxiety, in its most acute forms, can become a seriously debilitating issue, one which can make life very difficult. But knowing what anxiety is about and how it works can really make the difference. This is what this post is for and to share a few tips to start dealing with it!
So, starting with the basics, what is anxiety? Why do we experience it? Does it mean there’s something fundamentally wrong with me because I feel anxious?
Anxiety is not only normal, it’s vital!
No, there’s nothing strange about it. Anxiety is one of the many emotions we are equipped with since we are born. It’s like joy, anger, fear, frustration, and sadness, and we all have the possibility of experiencing it as coded in our DNA. We did not choose anxiety, just like we did not choose to have two hands and five fingers. These are there for a reason and the reason for anxiety is simply survival.
Not only anxiety is normal, but it’s also very important to have the ability to feel anxious. That’s because anxiety is essentially a defense mechanism that protects us from danger.
When it’s activated, anxiety triggers a very complex response both in our body and mind. You can notice it in your heart, running faster to pump more blood into our veins. You notice it in your breath, often getting faster (hyperventilation), but anxiety can also mean a sensation of tension in our muscles, pressure in our chest and many other physical symptoms. This complex reaction is known as the fight or flight response.
Fight or flight is a preparation to either fight against a threat or run away from it in order to survive. And as survival is the priority here, all efforts are pooled together, with our muscles receiving greater amounts of blood and oxygen to give us our best chances to live another day.
Thinking about it in this way, anxiety is a marvel! And it’s safe to say, without anxiety we would be extinct!
Anxiety like pain defends us from danger
So anxiety is a very important, ‘good’ emotion. It would be really undesirable to never feel anxious as much as it would be to never feel pain.
Just like anxiety, pain is perhaps not pleasant, but if we weren’t able to feel pain it would be very easy to harm ourselves, for example if we kept our hands in boiling water for more than an instant. Pain is our body and mind telling us to be cautious, in order to protect us from danger or harm.
When anxiety becomes a problem: from a tool for survival to a life-obstacle
There’s no problem with anxiety in itself, but more with what activates it and how often.
Many situations can make us feel anxious, and often this is not necessarily a problem. A problem exists and should be looked at, if anxiety impacts on our ability to live satisfying lives with family, friends, at work and so on. A problem exists when anxiety prevents us from living the life we want.
It’s normal to sometimes feel anxious before meeting new people, when taking a train or the underground or before going to a business meeting or giving a presentation at work. Some of these situations can be anxiety-provoking for many reasons, for example because we haven’t experienced them in a long time, or because we don’t want to give a bad impression. Anxiety is one of the ways in which our mind prepares us to face these situations.
The problem arises when anxiety is very often activated in our everyday activities, for example if we feel often anxious when getting the train to work. This can be an issue as it might lead us to be often late or even deciding to quit our job if the train is the only way to get there. Feeling anxious about social situations might mean gradually withdrawing from social life in order to avoid such difficult feeling, becoming isolated. In these situations, anxiety stops being a valuable tool for survival and becomes a difficult and consuming life obstacle.
If anxiety truly impacts our ability to work or spend time with friends and family, it means there possibly is a problem that we need to look at seriously.
Tip #1 to deal with Anxiety: looking critically at the anxious thoughts
The good news is that anxiety can be dealt with. It’s not a death sentence and is more often than not a challenge that we can win.
One of the most helpful things to do to deal with anxiety is to start to become aware of what is making us feel anxious in the moment we feel anxious. There is always a thought or an image which makes us feel anxious – an anxious thought. If we’re not aware of what is happening in our mind when we’re anxious it means we will have little chances of preventing a negative outcome. For example if I feel anxious as I am getting into the train and I decide to leave the station and I never question my anxious thoughts, I might never take the train again (and eventually lose my job!).
So when I am there at the platform and start to feel anxious, I could instead ask myself: “what’s making me feel anxious?”. I will probably find there’s a thought or an image about what I am afraid might happen as I get into the carriage.
That’s when I really get a chance to challenge this thought: there is almost always little or no evidence at all that that thought will happen. I can then remind myself that I am being afraid in the absence of a real danger, but only the remote possibility of it.
Most of the times, anxiety becomes a problem because our anxious thoughts are left unquestioned. Leaving anxiety unchallenged, in the long run, might mean allowing it to take control of our lives. So, becoming aware of what makes us anxious and choosing to critically evaluate the thought/image which makes us anxious can give control back to us.
Tip #2 to deal with Anxiety: anxious thoughts, are just thoughts, not reality
Whatever thought goes through our mind – and this is true for anxiety and any other emotion – is just a thought, not a fact. And it’s not even the thought itself that makes us feel anxious but our interpretation of it.
Thinking that something bad will happen as I enter the train is not the same as something bad actually happening.
Try it for yourself: think of a beautiful beach right now. Did the beach actually materialise? Probably not (sadly so!). This is because thoughts and reality are two very different things. But anxiety sometimes makes us believe that what we are thinking corresponds to reality. Thoughts are not facts.
Back to the train station, I feel anxious because of a very scary thought or image. At this point it’s important to ask ourselves another crucial question: “if this is just a thought (although a very disturbing one), and thoughts are not reality, do I want to act ‘as if’ that thought were true or do I want to consider a thought for what it really is, just a thought?” Doing this can strip the thought of its power over us.
Making our life about us, not anxiety
Overall, anxiety can feel overwhelming and become an obstacle to live a fulfilling life. However, if we can become aware of what is making us anxious, critically evaluate whether there is an actual danger and decide how to act, deliberately, purposefully, we have a chance of taking back control from anxiety.
Initially, this can simply mean to act differently, and so we will be able to decide whether to take that train, or give that presentation or go to that new pub or restaurant or to that job interview. But the great results will come In the long run: as I get accustomed to challenge and tolerate those thoughts, it will be much less likely that they will cause strong emotional responses like anxiety and we will eventually feel more confident to face life even in the presence of difficult thoughts which, again, are just thoughts, not reality!
I hope you found this post useful. Tell us about your experience of anxiety in the comments below. It’s never too late to deal with it!
If you are really struggling with anxiety, however, this post might not be enough, and you might need the help of a professional. Contact us to arrange for a 15 minutes free consultation to discuss your issues and if you desire, to arrange an initial appointment with a therapist from Therapy Central.
Thanks for reading through this and let us know what you would like our next posts to be about.
‘Till next time.
Dr. Raffaello Antonino
Clinical Director at Therapy Central