In simple terms, anxiety is a preconception that something bad is just about to happen. It’s the very same device that puts our body and mind into high alert. However, while this is a simple description, there’s much more to be known about different degrees of anxiety, along with the hows and whys in which it operates.
As a counsellor, it’s a little upsetting that even in the twenty first century very few people have any true understanding of what anxiety is. This has seemed to make it almost a taboo subject. For instance, if I were to say I have anxiety, many would automatically assume I had a mental illness like something out of the 197’s film ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. In fact, many anxieties are very normal parts of our everyday living.
Take, for instance, going to a job interview, or public speaking for the first time. Maybe even having an over-optimistic to-do list that leads to being overwhelmed. Or how about the one-off misconceptions that we’re in danger?
Take this example: whilst you’re walking out in the dark, two youths come running over to you shouting. At first your preconception is that you’re in danger, and your heart starts racing. As they get closer, you realise they’re shouting at the person behind you, that they all know each other, and all is well. Your heart is still racing, but there’s a relief that you read the situation wrong.
In any example like this, there’s the potential for our bodies to go into the fight or flight response that constitutes anxiety. There’s a misconception that all anxiety is bad, but in truth we wouldn’t survive without the very mechanism that keeps us alive.
I want to share my knowledge of anxiety and spread it as far as it will go, because while there’s a general misconception that all anxiety is a mental illness, normal anxiety isn’t being validated. People are experiencing normally fearful situations and concluding there’s something wrong with them. Anxiety as a result of stress alone is very typical of this, and the solution is to understand anxiety, along with addressing the balance of stressors to create a restful and healthy lifestyle.
What happens in the fight or flight response of anxiety is really quite intense. I’ve known many to take themselves off to A&E with the believe they’re going to die of a heart or asthma attack, only to learn they’ve been experiencing a panic attack. This always upsets me, not because someone has been mistaken, but because there are so few people to explain to them that what’s just happened in their body is quite normal, even though it feels completely abnormal.
So now let me tell you exactly what can happen to your body when it’s in a state of anxiety. The perception of grave danger will accelerate the heart rate and blood pressure. Along with this, there’s a great urgency to take in more oxygen. Oxygenated blood is drained from areas that need it less and is directed to the muscles. This is why some can look pale in colour, while the muscles are tense and rigid.
Meanwhile, in the brain activity is greatly sharpened, and senses are heightened to be on the lookout for danger. This can cause your thoughts to race. The perception of time will be slowed down, and often the ability to remember events correctly is diminished, while some memories of the event stay sharp and vivid.
Also, at the same time as the brain, heart and lung functions, the body will want to lighten its load. This is why you can feel you need to use the loo and feel sick at the same time. Many people report tightening around the chest or feel they can’t breathe. Some feel their heart pounding, some feel they’re going to lose control of their bodily functions, and some will feel their mind is leaving their body. So it’s very easy to understand why many will land on the A&E department.
Just think of what we could achieve if every young person could learn from school age about anxiety and what happens in our bodies during the fight or flight response. I believe over half the population with anxiety would experience it less intensely and that it wouldn’t be recurring.
I hope this gives you a better understanding of what anxiety is, and that you might share the knowledge or help to validate someone who is feeling anxious. Let’s get better as a nation at understanding anxiety, so that together we can downsize many a problematic anxiety to a normal anxiety.