What is Anxiety?

The experience of anxiety is something we are all familiar with but do we often reflect on what is actually occurring? We tend to frame it more in terms of what triggers it. We say things like, “I get anxious when I’m in unfamiliar company”, as if that anxiety is something which is received, is external to us. It is almost as though anxiety is a kind of virus that floats around crowded pubs, exam centres and rooms in which job interviews are conducted, silently waiting for its next victim! What makes this sense of externality so problematic is that it robs us of our control. Just as we have locked down and stayed at home to avoid a very real virus in recent times, we come to believe that we can manage anxiety through similar avoidance strategies. It feels safe on a couch or in a bed and yet the monster of or imaginings is not outside there in the big bad world at all – it is inside us, hardwired into our brains and nervous system and it means us no ill-harm if we can learn to understand it and re-internalise our sense of control over it.

At its most simple, anxiety is a signal produced by our nervous system. It is a call to action, what is classically known as the ‘fight or flight’ response. It can perhaps be best understood as an internal accelerator and brake that responds to perceived threat. This part of our brain is one of the most basic and we share it with all organisms and animals that have a relatively well developed nervous system. For example, if you have spent time with a dog you will be familiar with how they will stop when they hear something ahead of them, perhaps with one paw still suspended in the air, ears cocked and attentive. This is the point right on the edge between feeling safe and feeling threatened, the point at which a decision is made to proceed as normal or to prepare to fight or flee. In the moments that follow, their nervous system will either accelerate or brake.

This is essentially identical to how our own nervous systems respond to perceived threat. The problem for humans is that the modern world is so full of complication and evolution has not kept pace. We have a nervous system designed for older basic threats such as hungry bears that suddenly must process and make sense of multiple ongoing stressors like exams, work deadlines, financial difficulties and so on. We may think that we are keeping all of this in check with the sophisticated new parts of our human brains that dogs and other animals do not have but that old ‘fight or flight’ part is still trying to process threat with the same black-and-white, all-or-nothing, danger or no danger simplicity. The line between feeling safe and feeling threatened becomes difficult to establish. Put simply, this means that your nervous system translates all of that stress in your life as if you were being chased by that hungry bear for days, weeks, months, maybe even years. Is it any wonder then that anxiety can become overwhelming?

The good news is that, just as the source of our anxiety is located inside of us, so too is the solution. Once we come to recognise how we are reacting to external stressors, we can begin to learn strategies that allow us to respond instead. We can learn to self-calm and self-soothe in difficult circumstances. The simple act of learning to breathe deeply, down into our belly, tells our nervous system on a fundamental level that we are safe because people do not breathe calmly and deeply during actual bear attacks! For me, this is the starting point when working with clients on anxiety and the management of it. Learn to befriend your nervous system because that anxiety means you no harm. It actually intends to keep you from harm. Your job is to let it know you do not need it right now in this moment and it can rest easy.

Colin Heffernan Psychotherapy Ballintemple, Cork