What is anxiety and how do you untangle an anxious mind?
Many of us live with anxiety or a generalised anxiety disorder. In this short article, I have written about what living with anxiety is like, why people get anxious, how anxiety develops and some ideas to help manage anxiety. Anxiety is a huge topic and there are many different forms of anxiety, so understandably, this article only gives a brief insight into what anxiety is. Yet it might help someone who is living with anxiety or maybe inform someone who knows little about it and wants to support an anxious person they know.
Living with anxiety can be horrible. From my own personal experience, I know this to be true. What I write here comes from knowledge gained from living with this condition and also from my work and studies in mental health over the years.
Anxiety deeply taints every thought and feeling a person can have, having a profound effect on their ability to live life calmly and relaxed.
Each day can be spent continuously looking over your shoulder, fearful of what is around the corner or scared that something is going to crash down on your head.
For people who don’t experience anxiety, it can be difficult to appreciate or empathise what a life led this way can be like. Saying to someone, ‘don’t worry, it’s going to be fine’ won’t do much. The anxious person will already be calculating and evaluating everything that can go wrong, their mind far too busy to listen to the reassuring words. In their head, they will be saying, ‘things are only fine for now, but I need to think about what might come next’. Note the word ‘might’, that is important and I will mention this later.
Anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder are regularly the most searched keywords on the Counselling Directory, a platform that people use to find a therapist. In June 2021 alone, there were over 70,000 searches for these keywords. Clearly then, many people are living with anxiety and the effect it is having on their life means they are seeking support in managing it.
What purpose does anxiety serve?
It’s normal for people to feel anxious at times as life requires us all to deal with and manage stressful situations. The anxious feeling comes as a result of our brain processing what it needs to do, such as a fight or flight response. When the brain becomes aware of what it perceives as danger, it activates the release of different chemicals like adrenaline to help a person respond. This is important and necessary for survival, as a person dealing with a stressful situation in the here and now might need to act quickly to keep themself safe.
For people living with anxiety, their brains are trying continuously to make predictions in an unpredictable world about what ‘might’ happen. Their bodies will be primed ready for a fight or flight response even when no danger is present. This is mentally and physically exhausting and people can get really tied up in their thoughts. It can appear to make no sense to someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety. For the anxious person though, the need to be prepared to act, in order to stay safe, can feel absolutely essential. Especially if the person has previously experienced very frightening or traumatic events in their life. These events will have significantly shaped the landscape of their brain. Resulting in them having a deep-seated need to be on guard, to be prepared, to be defensive or be ready to attack. To the anxious person this feels very appropriate and necessary. Yet in reality it's not realistic or necessary to be on guard every hour of every day.
I would add, to contradict what I just wrote, I know personally that at times it makes absolutely no sense to be feeling anxious, especially when there appears to be no threat at all. It’s just that if your brain has become conditioned to being anxious all the time, then it can feel difficult to control the anxiety or override the churning thoughts and feelings in the mind.
The creation of an anxious thought and feeling
While writing this I thought of neuropsychologist’s Donald Hebb’s line ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’. Which means the way we think is created by the continual use and reinforcement of pathways in the brain.
So, how I see it, is that we will continually feel anxious if we keep on having anxious thoughts and feelings. Because each anxious thought reinforces the next one. So in order for anxiety to decrease, it becomes necessary to not feed it with more anxiety. Being constantly alert and hypersensitive is very draining on the body, so learning how to decrease anxiety is very important, but that’s easier said than done.
Anxiety can develop as a result of many different factors such as the significant everyday stressors and issues from health, jobs, finances and relationships to name but a few. People may say they are used to the pressure, but the effects on the body can be profound, like sitting in cold water and not noticing when the heat is turned up and the water is starting to boil.
Anxiety can also start when someone experiences an event that was unexpected and emotionally challenging. Something that really unsettles the individual and puts them on edge. As a result, the individual may start to fear the event will happen again, ruminating over what they would do. This process of imagining an event is significant because it can generate a lot of fear that has a big impact on a person’s wellbeing.
Research has shown that imagining situations can be just as powerful as real situations in the impact it has on the brain. So if you get scared about something, even with imagined events, your brain is going to get you ready to fight that danger or run away. Your body is flooded with chemicals, on high alert, but there actually isn't any danger at that moment. Your mind and body's response isn’t appropriate for what’s really happening.
Experiencing anxiety then is often related to imagining and dealing with situations in the present that haven't happened. Brought on by the fear of imagining a situation occurring again that was stressful or traumatic in the past.
As a counsellor, I would spend time with a person looking at what is causing the anxiety, such as an upsetting memory. This is very important for helping to anchor that memory in the past. Doing this can help a person in the present, because their mind can potentially become less activated by a mental stimulus related to their past, because they have the awareness that it's not happening today. This may help to break or alter the link in their mental pathway and reduce the foreboding sense of danger in the here and now that they live with each day.
Calming an anxious mind
Our thoughts are not always relative to what is happening at any given moment. Instead, we can be lost in our imagination, fantasizing about what may come because we feel it's necessary to be prepared for anything. These predictions though are like rocket fuel to anxiety, pumping up the intensity of thoughts about situations that most likely will never happen.
This is why the technique mindfulness is really useful as it helps people to appreciate that thoughts are just thoughts. They quickly change from one to the next.
Being mindful of your thoughts can help you learn not to get hooked onto one particular thought, which then drags you off to difficult and uncomfortable places. The technique involves being present in the moment without judgement. You take note of what you are doing, where you are and what you are thinking and feeling. Practising mindfulness can help to reduce stress, develop self-awareness and insight, by simply watching what goes on in your mind.
Other ways of managing anxiety are journaling or talking to someone else. This helps to get your thoughts out of your head. Take note of when you start to imagine the future and ask yourself if this is appropriate. We never know for sure what is going to happen, so is it helpful to guess what might happen and get stressed about it as a result.
Going for a walk or doing some exercise can help to distract you, but it’s necessary to be mindful about where your thoughts go. Stay in the present. I like to think of dogs, sniffing the world around them and being curious. They always look like they are in the moment. I don’t imagine they are concerned with what happened five years ago or what will happen tomorrow.
Living with anxiety sucks, it really does. It takes the joy and fun away from the moment and stops people from feeling present or being spontaneous. Yet anxious thoughts can be managed and tamed, but it's a slow process. Learning to watch what goes on in your mind, staying in the moment and finding tools or means of calming your internal system can really help alleviate anxious feelings. With this slow, measured, focus on your mental process, it's possible to start feeling calmer about the unpredictability of the world you live in.