Clinical psychologists Sue Knowles and Bridie Gallagher discuss what anxiety is and how, although it can sometimes feel unbearable for many people, we actually need our anxiety to make our lives work. Their article has been adapted from their new book, My Anxiety Handbook: Getting Back on Track, which provides young people with guidance on how to recognise and manage anxiety’s difficulties.
Anxiety is what happens when our bodies think we are under threat. It’s a feeling that most people describe as unpleasant, but the physical sensations can actually be very similar to feelings of excitement. The difference when we’re anxious is that we also have anxious thoughts or interpret the feeling as “bad”. Other words that are commonly used to describe feeling anxious are “nervous”, “fearful” or “worried”.
Everyone responds a little differently when they are anxious. Some people feel anxiety mostly in their body with sensations in their stomach, chest and even sometimes their arms and legs. Other people might say that anxiety is “in their head” because the main thing they notice is that their thoughts go very fast. These things happen in our body and our mind because when our body notices a “threat”, it responds in the way that it has since we were living in caves. Back then, we were threatened by predators and worried about being clubbed to death by other cavemen. Now, we might be more worried about exams and feel threatened by new groups of people. So, in the way that is has for eons, your brain uses the information collected by your eyes and ears to detect threats in your environment and, without consulting you, releases a number of chemicals that have immediate effects on both your body and the way you think.
These chemicals affect your breathing, your digestion, heart rate, blood flow and muscle tension. The aim is to make you ready to get very far away from the threat quickly (flight), kick the hell out of that caveman (fight) or pretend you are dead so he goes away and leaves you alone (freeze). So, your heart rate and breathing speed up, your blood flows away from you internal organs and towards your arms and legs so they are ready for action. The unintended consequences can be that you feel tense and a bit sick, or get butterflies in your stomach. You could start to sweat and feel light-headed or a bit dizzy, even though you might be sitting still. All these reactions are clever ways ways of your brain helping you to be ready and prepared to manage threat. However, as threats have changed significantly since this threat system evolved, these reactions are not as useful as they once were. If we don’t understand what our body is doing, then these reactions themselves can cause even more anxiety.
Some people feel anxious every day; other people only feel anxious occasionally. Some people’s brains will kick off the chemical reactions much more easily than others. We think, from looking at the research, that this can be because they were either born with a sensitive threat system or because they have had more difficult and stressful experiences, or both. There are lots of individual differences, but what we know is that everyone experiences anxiety.
When we are anxious, several things happen to the way we think. It becomes easier to think of negative rather than positive outcomes, we get stuck on “what if” questions, and our thinking brain shuts down and our threat brain (focused solely on survival) takes over. This means that we struggle to use the bits of our brains that usually would help us to solve problems and see the wider context, because these bits are offline whilst we manage the threat. This is a really effective way of dealing with physical threats that were common for cavemen, but it does not serve us so well in complex social situations that we find ourselves in now.
That said, we wouldn’t want to be entirely without anxiety. This may sound silly, especially if anxiety is making your life miserable, however it is important to remember that anxiety is useful and we wouldn’t want to be without it. We developed flight, fight and freeze for a very good reason and although we now have more complex worries and things to be scared of, we still need our anxiety to make our lives work.
Imagine if parents didn’t feel anxious about their new baby? Dads might not bother to baby-proof the house, mums might not bother to check that the car seats are attached properly. None of these things work out very well for the baby.
Worrying about exams might be stressful, but is it worse than not worrying about exams? If we didn’t have any anxiety about the future, then we would probably just sit and eat ice-cream rather than revising. After all, which is more fun and pleasant?
In our new book, we do not aim to rid you of your anxiety. This might sound like a blissful idea, but we really think that your anxiety is an important and useful part of your life. It might just need some understanding, and maybe some taming, to make sure it is helping more than it is causing you problems. We aim to provide you with information and young people’s stories that will help you to better understand your anxiety and where it might come from, and to explain a number of different approaches and strategies to help you to feel more in control of your anxiety. The ideas that we have included come from research studies, our experiences of working with young people, and the experiences of young people and what they have found helpful.
Use code MAH for a 10% discount when you order this book from our website before the 10th February.
If you would like to read more articles like Sue and Bridie’s and hear the latest news and offers on our Mental Health books, why not join our mailing list? We can send information by email or post as you prefer. You can unsubscribe at any time.