Anxiety is universal
As a therapist I meet a lot of people who struggle with anxiety and panic. As a human being, I know the feeling. Anxiety affects us all at different times, whether we are nervous about giving a speech, asking someone out, or sitting an exam. We’ve all felt butterflies in our stomach. To a greater or lesser degree we might feel other things, a racing heart, needing to urinate more, shaky or tingly hands, an inability to think about other things.
This is because anxiety and panic activate our most basic survival mechanisms in our brains and bodies.
Fight / Flight / Freeze
Imagine your ancestors, living in a hunter-gatherer society. We evolved from species who were not the top of their food chain, they were prey, they had to survive attacks from dangerous predators and much more in an unforgiving environment.
They needed to stay alert, and be ready to fight back, run away or (flight), if all else fails, play dead (freeze) at a moments notice.
We are the products of millennia of evolution fine tuning our survival skills. Long story short, we are descended from the ones who were the best at surviving, the quickest to see and react to danger. Another mortal danger was exclusion from the tribe, if you aren’t eating with the others around the campfire, you are easy prey for predators. There are good reasons why for many people anxiety manifests in social situations.
So my ancestors were the best of the best at surviving, now what?
We are hard-wired to assess our environment for threat and react to it. We still do a great job of this, staying alert, scanning for danger. The issue is that the threats we face in 2020 are often less mortal danger and more psychological. I gave the examples of exams and giving a speech above, and most of us might feel a little anxiety when undertaking these tasks.
But for many people it doesn't stop there, we feel overwhelmed with anxiety when at a social event, maybe we can't stop checking our body for symptoms of illness, maybe we lay awake at night thinking about all the ways today was difficult and all the ways tomorrow might go wrong.
Anxiety unchecked can make life feel very hard.
Anxiety unchecked can erode our confidence and trust in ourselves and our ability to cope with life.
Our threat-response system does not differentiate.
The problem is that even if we know that that this party we are at will not result in us being at risk of dying, the anxiety we feel is the same as if that were true. we interpret our racing thoughts, racing heart, and sense of dread as signs that this situation is indeed very unsafe. We feel genuine fear and terror.
Calming anxiety often requires more than just thinking. Counselling and psychotherapy can help you to understand the things you worry about, and why. There are also techniques that you can use to help yourself, for example my favourite breathing technique, or these resources and information provided by Mind.
If you are feeling panic or struggling with worry, you do not have to do this alone, check out my crisis resources to find help and support.