WHAT IS ANXIETY?
Well, this is a question we are all asking ourselves at the moment. COVID-19 is testing us all whether we are one of the many NHS and frontline workers or one of the people having to be confined to our homes – anxiety is real to so many right now.
The answer as to what anxiety is will change with whoever is answering the question. Anxiety feels different to everyone and each person experiencing anxiety will have different symptoms. To some, anxiety will be felt when left alone and not speaking to another human being for days on end but to someone else, anxiety may be experienced when walking into a crowded shop – anxiety is triggered by a variety of things and will be different for many people.
Anxiety isn’t just one symptom or worry – it’s a diagnosable mental health condition that affects millions of people across the world.
There are lots of theories about the purpose of anxiety and why modern living might make it worse and discussions continue as to whether medication or talking therapies are the best treatment for treating anxiety.
What we do know is that anxiety, particularly during the current time is high and can make us feel incredibly isolated, but remember, if you are feeling anxious right now, you are definitely not alone.
MIND defines anxiety as:
“Anxiety is what we feel when we are worried, tense or afraid – particularly about things that are about to happen, or which we think could happen in the future. Anxiety is a natural human response when we perceive that we are under threat. It can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations.” (https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/anxiety-and-panic-attacks/about-anxiety/)
ANXIETY – A NATURAL HUMAN RESPONSE
Dangers & threats – way, way back, a long time before smartphones, computers and Deliveroo, before cities, skyscrapers and office jobs, in a time when humans lived in tribes in the wild, our early brains had to equip themselves with strategies for surviving in an extremely risky world. We had to be on guard for all sorts of predators, dangers and threats. We’d be on guard for tigers and other wild animals as we foraged in the forests for food, making sure we chose to harvest the good nuts and berries that wouldn’t poison us.
Survival of the fittest – we knew that there was strength in numbers and fitting in with the rest of the tribe was so, so important and so, being socially outcast from our tribe meant our chances of survival would be less.
Fight, Flight, Freeze, Flop – our brains are biologically programmed to respond to these types of threats in certain ways, and this is where our Fight/Flight/Freeze/Flop response comes in. When our brain perceives danger of any kind, it sends chemicals around our body to help prepare us in the best possible way to cope with what is ahead for us.
So, faced with a perceived danger our bodies could react on a primal level:-
- Fight – stand our ground and face the threat head-on and take our chances that we are bigger, stronger, fitter and more able to beat our opponent.
- Flight – run away from the threat. Having made the decision that the other guy is bigger, stronger etc the best course of action to stay safe is run as fast as you can to get out of imminent danger.
- Freeze – stay as still as possible and there may be a chance that the danger may not see you or consider you a threat. Think about the saying ‘like a deer/rabbit caught in headlights’
- Flop – play dead. This is just what the possum does and, in fact, ‘playing possum’ has also become a common saying in our vocabulary. This response is particularly useful if you’re caught in the jaws of a predator who, if we play dead, might just leave us alone.
ANXIETY – IT’S NOT ALL BAD NEWS
However, as humans in the 21st century, the threats of being chased by a wild animal or being trapped in the jaws of a preditor are few and far between but the brain hasn’t evolved enough to cope with these changes and therefore our basic instincts of the fight/flight/freeze/flop response still work in exactly the same way when we perceive a threat looming.
In the world we live now, we certainly need to be able to run quickly to get out the way of a speeding car and respond if we become under attack. Anxiety can get us out of a sticky situation or imminent danger.
You may respond in the fight response when reaching for the last pack toilet rolls and someone got there just before you, or in flight when in sitting near someone who is clearly unwell, freeze when we hear difficult or upsetting news about friends and family or flop when you’re in an abusive relationship and feel in danger.
You may have come across the term fight or flight before and it’s often used to describe the sensations anxiety might provoke in us.
- Increased heart rate – this helps you prepare to fight or run
- Sensory overload – where you may have increased sensitivity to noise, colours or light
- Nausea, stomach cramping, excessive sweating – where your body is trying to lighten its load so you can run away faster
- Hyperventilating – so you’re taking short breaths and getting ready to run
ANXIETY IN THE MODERN WORLD
As the primal threats that previously required the fight/flight response don’t really exist anymore, our brains latch onto modern versions of things that might scare us instead.
- persistent worries or fears of the future – we all worry from time to time but it’s the persistent, constant worries about family, work, health etc and how it is going to affect us and the people we care about in the future that may affect our levels of anxiety.
- intense reaction to a specific situation – in today’s pandemic crisis, this could be learning that a family member or friend has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and possibly hospitalised. A totally scary time and bound to make even the level headed of us anxious.
ANXIETY/PANIC ATTACKS – HOW YOU MIGHT FEEL
Anxiety or panic can cause almost instantaneous reactions, feelings in your body change out of your control and you may feel:
- hot or cold shivers
- like you may faint
- heart beating fast
- thumping head
- a reaction to noise or bright lights
- sick or nauseous
- that you need the toilet…now!
Panic attacks can occur for all kinds of reasons. They can be triggered by just one thought that you can’t get out of your head, maybe by past experiences or even come at you completely out of the blue for no apparent reason. They happen in places you have felt safe in the past, in the company of people you’re used to or when you’re alone. They can be extremely distressing and may feel like you’re are having a heart attack or even like you’re dying. These feelings can feel awful and should definitely not be ignored.
Don’t make a fuss – get a grip, just get over it!!
Panic attacks and persistent anxiety are not symptoms that you should just brush off or ‘get over’. Being teased, mimicked or told jokes to be ‘cheered up’ are just plain irritating, and being told ‘there’s nothing to worry about, you’re safe’ does not help when high anxiety has taken over and the feelings of threat, dread and panic are all too real.
Know what works for you
If you suffer from any or all of these symptoms, please know that there are ways and means to help manage them and by seeking help you can find the ways that work best for you.
It can feel incredibly daunting to seek help for anxiety, as quite a number of us are programmed to just get on with things and not make a fuss. But anxiety can be seriously debilitating and you do not have to suffer it alone.
Talking to friends and family can really help but when you don’t want to share your personal thoughts and feelings with people close to you, a counsellor can really help too.
Even in such a crisis as we are in at the moment, you can still talk to your GP to discuss what treatment is best to reduce your anxiety whether that is medication or talking therapy.
Do whatever you need to do to cope in the best way you can.
HOW CAN I HELP YOU?
Anxiety is so debilitating at the best of times but now Coronavirus is so high in our thoughts, news, social media and newspapers. We are constantly reminded how many people have contracted or died during the epidemic, and that alone can make us all feel highly anxious and fearful as we become more concerned for ourselves, family and friends.
I work with people experiencing anxiety helping them find ways to feel calmer, less anxious and less stressed, which is particularly helpful during these challenging times.
If you are feeling anxious and fearful, for any reason at all, talking to someone about your fears might just help. For details of how I can help you click here Home
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