ONE REASSURING FACT about anxiety and panic is that they’re perfectly normal human responses when faced with danger and uncertainty. Your mind and body are working together just the way they’re supposed to work; keeping you safe.
An uncomfortable feeling of worry, nervousness, or agitation; usually about something that ‘might’ happen.
Man the hunter
Man the hunter is a term often associated with our early ancestors, but ‘man the hunted’ is a more accurate portrayal. Man was in fact rather a feeble creature compared to those he shared his world with. Creatures much faster and stronger, and much better equipped; all sharp teeth and claws!
So how did mankind ever survive to get this far? By being cautious, by being alert, and by being good at spotting and avoiding danger. So you can see that had your ancestors never developed the ability to experience anxiety and panic, you probably wouldn’t be here reading these words today.
Misusing your imagination
What we’ve been talking about so far is a response to a real, or at least potentially real, threat. The human brain, however, has evolved another very clever feature; it’s called the imagination. A person can use their imagination wisely to formulate and perfect all manner of new ideas, but they can easily misuse it too.
One crucial point to grasp is that when imagining something vividly, the mind cannot tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imaginary. This makes it possible for a person to conjure up thoughts that trick the mind into generating fear and panic responses to situations that aren’t really happening. And because the mind has the capacity to create limitless worrying scenarios, so a person’s anxiety can become equally limitless.
Anxiety is essentially about planning and preparation; trying to foresee all conceivable hazards – what ifs – so as to be able to plan for them or avoid them altogether. The trouble with that is, you’re always planning for disasters in the future; disasters that will probably never happen.
All that avoidance means nothing is ever achieved, and what started out as a ‘comfort zone’ can slowly turn into a ‘velvet prison’. Avoidance also keeps your mind focused exactly where it doesn’t need to be; on the very thing that’s causing your anxiety and fear.
Anxiety is a bit like being on ‘yellow alert’, not quite the ‘red alert’ of fear and panic. The senses have picked up on something uncertain and the body is on standby, just in case. Whereas panic is a relatively short lived response to a real or perceived threat, anxiety is like being on constant lookout for that threat.
Subtle changes occur within the body, including:
- Jumpiness and feeling on edge.
- Heightened senses, looking out for danger.
- Muscles tensed, just in case physical exertion is called for.
This state of readiness means the body can quickly activate the fear and panic response – fight or flight – if events deem it necessary.
Problems start when a person worries about all kinds of things that aren’t actually happening at the moment; worrying about things in future. Because these events cannot easily be resolved at this time, the person experiences a state of anxiety for prolonged periods. This is what makes anxiety so mentally and physically exhausting.
Anxiety also distracts a person’s attention away from the many other things they need to be doing. Life starts to get out of control, leading to more stress and even more anxiety.
Did you know...
Fear is experienced by both humans and animals alike, but anxiety is an emotion exclusive to us humans.
Types of anxiety
Anxiety falls into several categories, and a person can experience elements of one or more of them.
- Anticipatory anxiety – Worrying about a specific problem or situation that, at this moment in time, has an uncertain outcome.
- General anxiety – A more general background level of worrying. Again, it’s about things that have an uncertain outcome, but this time the subject is more vague and ill defined. This is often referred to as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
- Social anxiety – Worrying about social situations, interacting with other people, and having undue concern about what other people think.
- Health anxiety – Worrying about potential health problems and about having a (usually imagined) serious illness.
- Intrusive thoughts – Worrying about random thoughts and trying to assign some kind of meaning to them.
Other conditions closely related to anxiety are:
- Obsessive compulsive disorder – Often referred to as OCD; a person experiences obsessive recurring thoughts, followed by a compulsion to perform some sort of ritualistic behaviour to nullify those thoughts.
- Panic attacks – Intense and overwhelming fear, experienced when facing a real or imagined life-threatening incident.
- Phobias – A very specific overwhelming but irrational feeling of fear about something that poses no real or immediate danger.
- Post traumatic stress disorder – Or PTSD. Intense terror associated with a life threatening event from the past, with the person reliving that event through nightmares and flashbacks long after the event itself. This can be as much as many years after.
Sometimes these labels can make a person feel worse, but professionals love using them because it makes their life easier; giving them one thing less to worry about. However, it can leave a person thinking, “Gosh! I’ve got anxiety, OCD, intrusive thoughts... how am I ever going to get better?”
As I said before, a person often experiences elements of several different anxiety categories, so why not forget the labels and simply call it anxiety. It’s just your own personally unique flavour of anxiety, that’s all.
A person often seeks a permanent cure for anxiety and panic; considering it a real setback if they ever return. But if you’ve read this far I hope you’re beginning to understand why that just isn’t possible.
For example, it’s good to be wary of danger when crossing a busy road, or when climbing a ladder. It’s good to stay alert and focused when learning something new, because becoming too complacent before becoming proficient could land you in all sorts of trouble. It’s good to feel a little anxious in a new or unfamiliar situation, just in case there’s trouble ahead. Even when there’s no physical danger, there’s still potential for the pain of humiliation if you do something silly, so being cautious and alert makes it easier to notice all the little clues about how to act in that new situation.
So you see, anxiety and panic are a natural part of being human – just like sleeping or breathing – and at the right time are essential for your continued safety and well being. In fact the undue stress caused by seeing it as a setback or personal failure only adds to that overall stress level that helps keep the whole cycle going.
What can be sought, however, are more appropriate responses to certain situations; better ways to manage your thoughts, and better ways to use your imagination.
Relaxation – the antidote to anxiety
It’s simply not possible to feel anxious and calm at the same time.
Calm and relaxed = Not anxious and panicky
So instead of trying to feel less anxious, it’s much easier to focus on feeling more relaxed. The subconscious mind – the part where fear and anxiety originate – works much better at providing what you do want rather than avoiding what you don’t; therefore it's best to concentrate on the state of mind you’d like to be in.
Many people find self hypnosis helps them become more calm and relaxed, and feeling more calm and relaxed makes it easier to tolerate a little more uncertainty in your life. The mind works much better when it’s calmer, and it becomes easier to find solutions and see possibilities that you simply couldn’t think of when you were so tense and on edge. This also reduces anxiety.
If you love a good read, I think you’ll find the books by Dr Claire Weekes enlightening. Her work is based on her own personal experience of anxiety and panic, her experiences as a doctor helping others, and her ingeniously applied scientific knowledge. She never claims to ‘cure’ people; preferring to say she ‘shows’ people how to cure themselves.
In her unique one to one style, Claire Weekes talks to you directly through the pages of her books in simple, easy to understand language. This makes it easy for a tired mind to take the information in.
Her international best seller – Self Help for Your Nerves – is regarded by many panic and anxiety sufferers as their ‘bible’. An excellent companion book – Essential Help for Your Nerves – combines two earlier works (‘More Help for Your Nerves’ and ‘Peace from Nervous Suffering’) into one handy edition. Along with anxiety and panic attacks, it covers such topics as phobias, agoraphobia, obsessions, and depression.
What do you want to do now
- Anticipatory anxiety
Is your life plagued by constant what ifs, and disasters that never happened?
- General anxiety (GAD)
An almost constant worry about things that might go wrong.
What about one of these to help you overcome anxiety?
- Overcome anxiety
More pages about anxiety and how to calm it.
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