What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is the inappropriate triggering by the mind of the human body’s natural stress response that can result in the sufferer experiencing certain uncomfortable physical or mental symptoms.
Now if you Google “what is anxiety” you will more than likely come across a definition like this one that can be found on the NHS’s website, which in case you don’t know is the National Health Service in the UK. This is what it says:
“Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.”
Now – I am here to tell you this is definitely NOT what anxiety is!
This is what anxiety feels like for some people, it is one of the symptoms or side effects of suffering from anxiety and not necessarily one that everyone feels. This is part of the problem when it comes to people trying to get help for their anxiety, a lot of the information out there is misleading to say the least. Even from what should be highly respected sources.
No, anxiety is not a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear that can be mild or severe.
Anxiety is the inappropriate triggering by the mind of the human body’s natural stress response.
Let me say that again…
Anxiety is the inappropriate triggering by the mind of the human body’s natural stress response.
Our Natural Stress Response
You see every species has over the millennia evolved a protection mechanism in order to attempt to ensure its survival against the most common threats that it would encounter, so that it can ensure the survival of its species. So that it could pass on its genes to the next generation.
Whether that’s the ability of some fish to change the pigment of their skin to camouflage themselves, or how some lizards can detach their own tail to escape being caught by a predator or the Opossum that plays dead every living thing has evolved a way to attempt to survive its most common type of threat.
And we as humans are no different, we have our own natural stress response and it is commonly known as – the fight or flight response.
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Dealing with Physical Threats
And it has evolved to help us to deal with the primary type of threat that we have faced throughout our evolution as a species – Physical threats!
Physical threats like being attacked by a wild animal or a warring tribe or even a member of our own tribe.
When we are faced with a situation like this our natural stress response is automatically triggered in order to help us deal with the situation at hand.
Now while I don’t have time here to go in to all the detail of exactly what happens on a bio-chemical and physiological level in your body, in a nutshell what happens is that the body redirects the resources of the body like blood, oxygen and glucose from where it is used when you are going about your normal daily business to where it is needed in order to deal with the threat at hand.
So say for example a couple of hundred thousand years ago, you are out hunting antelope on the plains of African and you encounter a lion. Your mind instantly recognises the threat and activates your natural stress response so that it can divert blood oxygen and glucose to where it is needed; the big muscles in your arms, chest and legs so that you can do one of two primary things; Run like hell or stand and fight for your very survival.
And every single sensation, thought, emotion and behaviour that you experience when you are suffering from anxiety in any form, is caused by this natural stress response. The heart palpitations, the rapid breathing, the digestive issues, the shaking, the irrational behaviour , the crazy emotions, the tiredness, the paranoia, the incessant worrying, the forgetfulness/memory loss, the nonsense thoughts running through your mind – everything is related to the activation of your stress response.
And it is a natural and appropriate response when you encounter a physical threat. Which if we think about it, throughout our evolution would have been 99.9% of the threats that we would have encountered as a species. And it served us well. It is what has allowed us to survive as a species in the face of physical threats.
Once Bitten – Twice Shy!
And when we encountered a new physical threat that is similar to a threat we have experienced in the past our brain quickly learns that this is another instance where it should automatically trigger our stress response to ensure our survival.
A real case of once bitten – twice shy!
And that is our natural stress response and you cannot get rid of that. And neither would we want to.
But that is not anxiety.
Remember what anxiety is; the inappropriate triggering by the mind of the human body’s natural stress response.
So how does it get inappropriately triggered?
Well here’s the biggest problem….
Remember when I said that our stress response has evolved to help us to deal with the primary type of threat that we have faced throughout our evolution as a species – Physical threats!
How often do the majority of us encounter physical threats in our daily lives?
Not very often!
These Threats are Everywhere!
The vast majority of the threats that we face in the modern world are psychological threats like relationship stresses, fighting with your significant other, or your kids or your neighbours. Financial stresses like paying the bills or paying the mortgage, work related stress like targets or deadlines or disgruntled customers or even everyday stresses like just sitting stick in traffic or having to speak in public.
Where in the past 99.9% of the threats that we faced as a species were physical, today that has changed and 99.9% of the threats that we face as a species are psychological.
But here’s the problem with that. We don’t have a stress response that has evolved for dealing with psychological stresses, we only have one that has evolved for dealing with physical stresses.
And what happens then when we encounter a psychological stress, well our mind activates the only stress response that you have – the fight or flight stress response.
Because it’s the only stress response that we have as we haven’t evolved a stress response for dealing with psychological stress.
And what’s more is that the natural fight or fight stress response that is triggered (because of all of the effects that it has on you physically, emotionally and mentally) makes you even less well equipped to deal with the psychological stress that you are encountering!
How Anxiety is Formed
So that’s why when you are faced with a psychological stress like standing up in front of a crowd to speak, you suddenly find that your heart is beating like a bass drum and your mouth has gone dry and you cannot remember what you were meant to say and you start to sweat and shake. This is your body having a physical stress response to a psychological situation. And whereas in a physical threat situation these things are helpful in this situation it makes everything ten times worse!
Now this may or may not be a situation that causes anxiety for you but let’s just stick with this example.
So the first cause of our anxiety is the inappropriate triggering of a stress response to deal with physical threats being triggered in response to psychological threats…
Let’s imagine that every time that you stood up to speak in front of a group of people your body’s stress response was triggered. What would happen? Well you would begin to dread ever standing up in front of a group of people, wouldn’t you.
So as soon as you know that you have to stand up and speak you start to envisage what is going to happen. Now just the thought of having to stand up and speak in front of a group of people in the future now triggers your stress response.
Or let’s imagine that the first time that you ever stood up to speak in front of a group of people, it was an absolute and utter disaster, I’m talking total embarrassment, total humiliation. You might instantly develop a fear of speaking in front of groups.
So something that is not in any way a physical threat to your survival (speaking in front of a group of people) can become an automatic trigger for your stress response. It has become a learned behaviour, a learned reaction as the result of one of two things either;
Repeated exposure to a stressful trigger (the sensitising event) or…
A single very intensely negative emotional experience.
So then your mind gets programmed to inappropriately activate your stress response in reaction a psychological threat.
And when it reacts automatically like this and you cannot stop it from starting or stop it once it has started…
That is anxiety!
The inappropriate triggering by the mind of the human body’s natural stress response.
As I said this is just an example of inappropriate activation of the physical stress response in reaction to a psychological threat. And this example may or may not be a trigger for you, but that doesn’t matter as everyone’s anxiety has this same root cause and structure.
For example here’s a former client of mine Steven and this was his experience. He always thought that he was going to be cursed with anxiety and panic attacks for the rest of his life. He says;
“I was having regular panic attacks. These were stopping me from doing simple things like riding the bus home from work, taking the tram to the gym and skipping gigs and events because I would be in a full blown panic and floods of tears in the lead up to the event. None of it ever made any sense to me and was driving me mad.”
But after he worked with me, this is what happened.
“Things have gotten better day by day and continue to do so! Dave and his techniques for dealing with anxiety are magic. I am delighted I made that very first step”