Anxiety is one of the biggest global mental health issues of our current day and age. Whilst this is almost reassuring in a backwards sort of ‘I’m not alone’ kind of way, what does anxiety mean for you?
For years and years during my twenties I was crippled by anxiety.
I used to respond to seemingly harmless events with extreme nausea, headaches and dizziness. Indeed, there were times where I thought I was actually dying.
And for those who do not and have not suffered from anxiety in its extreme, it’s a tricky one to get their heads around.
‘But everyone feels nervous about some things, don’t they?’
‘We all have days where the stress is just a bit too much, don’t we?’
Yes and yes. But it’s all about how we HANDLE our stresses and worries; for some of us it feels completely beyond our control.
Let’s dive in, shall we?
Below is run down of the ins and outs of anxiety, what it means for you and how you have a bit more control over it than you might think (even though, it never feels that way…does it?)
WHAT IS ANXIETY IN ITS MOST BASIC FORM?
Let’s cut to the chase here: Anxiety is FEAR.
Anxiousness is a feeling that derives from one of base emotions which is fear.
Have you ever sat in a park and looked about and noticed all the small children playing in the playground? (In a way that is not creepy at all in any way…)
You might see them hanging off the monkey bars or flinging themselves off the top of the slide or screaming to their parents to push them higher on the swings because THEY WANT TO FLY!!
That’s because children are fearless.
Young children experience the base emotions you see below in the central circle of the feelings wheel developed by Dr Gloria Wilcox.
But the feelings you can see in the two outer circles, that are extensions of the base emotions, develop as we develop.
Anxiousness is an extension of fear along with nervousness, insecure and frightened.
These are all what psychologists explain as being ‘self-conscious emotions’. They grow with us as we gain a greater sense of awareness surrounding our emotions and the reasons behind them.
‘But fear is one of those base emotions, Emma. So how can you say children are fearless?’
Well, firstly, not ALL children are fearless. But the many who are, at least in their very early infancy, behave with such a lack of fear because they haven’t yet gained the experience (the awareness) to understand why they SHOULD be afraid of something.
They have not yet fallen off the monkey bars and broken their arms.
The experience of reaching the top of the swings only to fall out has not yet occurred.
And, they haven’t skied down the mountain and hurled themselves off the edge of the seemingly endless white cliff.
And skiing is a perfect example.
I learnt to ski when I was 25 and I was TERRIFIED. Uh, hello? What is stopping me from slip-slopping straight off the edge? Snow plow only gives you so much control you know!
However, alongside my adult ski school was the toddler ski school and what do you know? They were zooming past me, laughing and giggling – NO FEAR.
This is because the self-conscious emotions that we develop as we age are the ones that are associated with having a greater understanding of what’s going on around us.
So when it comes to anxiety we’re really talking about FEAR.
WHAT CAUSES ANXIETY?
…A multitude of things. What does this mean for you?
It means that although anxiety is experienced by a lot of people, you need to understand what has triggered it for individually.
Medical News Today explains the following potential causes of anxiety to be as follows:
Anything that causes you increased stress, tension or worry could potentially be a cause of your anxiety.
We live in a world of stress.
Everyone in your life expects more of you, you’re pulled in ten thousand different direction and with only 12 hours in every day you wonder why you’re exhausted and yet unable to sleep.
Anxiety is so broad in its terminology and what it means to different people that you might be surprised at what has triggered it for you.
However, no matter what it might be, you must not disregard it.
My anxiety catastrophized when I was 16, during my GCSE exams at school.
I felt as though I was perfectly equipped to ace the tests, I felt prepared and content knowing that I had revised hard and was a pretty bright student and yet suddenly I was experiencing extreme nausea out of nowhere.
The pressure of doing well in these exams filled me with underlying dread, stress and worry that I was going to fail.
So, although I THOUGHT I felt fine, my body was telling me otherwise.
Once I realized what was going on I tried to dismiss it. People experience chronic anxiety after traumatic childhood events, abuse, the loss of loved ones, living through terminal illness and so many more tragic reasons…and I was nervous about EXAMS?
Pssssssht….uh….no, thank you. I’ll keep that quiet.
The cause of your anxiety is relevant in the sense that it will help you to understand why you’re responding in such a severe way.
However, it doesn’t matter what the cause of your anxiety is when it comes to how SEVERE the reason for your reaction. I cannot compare the fear of failing an exam to the fear of being beaten by an abusive partner every evening.
But, if it’s impacting your life and existence then it cannot and must not be ignored.
What anxiety means for you in terms of your physical response might be similar to a lot of people worldwide but the causes may be nothing alike. This does not matter.
If you’re experiencing anxiety to a degree whereby it is damaging to your existence then it doesn’t matter how ‘big’ or ‘small’ the cause is.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF ANXIETY
OK, so let’s look at the different forms of anxiety that someone might experience:
I have linked each with a corresponding website that can go into more detail about each and every one of the above.
This however, is a general overview from WEBMD.
As you can see, anxiety in itself can be very broad but the reasons behind each remain the same; fear of a situation or potential situation causes stress and worry which in turn governs your response.
One can cross over into the other or you might experience a very specific type of anxiety in isolation.
I personally suffered mostly with social anxiety disorder which occasionally crossed over into selective mutism and a few scary times where agoraphobia reared its head.
I don’t want to spend too much time lingering in this section because if you’re wanting to know about the types of anxiety in greater detail then there are already many places that Google has to offer with full, in-depth explanations.
Click any of the types above that you want to learn more about and hopefully you’ll arrive at one such article.
What I think we should look at together, you and I, is how to look at anxiety for what it really is so that you can change your mind-set surrounding it in a bid to overcome anxiety and take control of your life.
WHEN IS ANXIETY USEFUL?
Yes, in a strange backward turn of events, anxiety is actually useful when it can be controlled.
Jumping back; anxiety is fear and fear is an emotion. Whether you like it or not all emotions, even the ones we perceive to be negative, care helpful to you.
In essence, emotions are simply feedback. They are trying to tell you what you think about any given moment, event or conversation. Emotions are there to help guide us through life and in a slightly counterintuitive manner, the less pleasant of them perhaps do a better job of this.
Let me explain.
Fear is part of our survival instinct.
Our reptilian brain lights up in times of danger or high alert, triggering our fight or flight response and telling us to prepare to run or fight.
Back in the days of yonder, this would be INTEGRAL to the survival of man.
How grateful do you think they were to have the ability to fear the grizzly bear charging at them so that they could get the fuck out of there and survive another day?
Without this, who knows what might happen…a hop and a skip toward the big cuddly bear before suddenly realizing they are missing an arm.
And today, this survival instinct is still relevant but in today’s world it is not so often we find ourselves fearing life and death in the face of a grizzly bear, our problems are quite different (more on that in the next section).
When you have control over how you respond to your emotions then anxiety like shame, jealousy and boredom which are all considered ‘negative’ emotions are useful.
They are trying to TELL YOU SOMETHING.
You feel ashamed? Then perhaps you’ve done something wrong that needs to be rectified.
You feel jealous? That’s your body telling you that you want something so go get it!
How about boredom? Time to get off your ass and be productive, my friend.
When these feeling are born from the rational and not the irrational, they are only ever useful to you. But the problem is, we’re so ingrained now to aim for HAPPY and MORE and BETTER that these self-conscious emotions are developing more and more from the irrational.
MODERN DAY ANXIETY – WHAT DOES IT MEAN?
All of us might experience very different degrees of trauma throughout life and so when I now go on to discuss the following, I am talking about the irrational reasons behind experiencing anxiety.
What do I mean by that I hear you ask?
Here are a few examples –
Experiencing anxiety surrounding your body image which causes you social anxiety because you want to hide your body is irrational. This is because at the very basic emotional level, the likelihood of something tragic happening to you purely because of your aesthetic is extremely low.
This is not a life or death situation but it is most likely born from low self-esteem and a bombardment of body perfection on social media.
The reason this is irrational is because it is INTERNAL. You have the ability to change how you perceive your body. How you respond to your feelings of shame surrounding your looks is also in your control.
You will not be bludgeoned by an oncoming mob because you’re not a perfectly svelte size 8.
This does not diminish or belittle the anxiety you feel surrounding it but it is an irrational FEAR.
Perhaps you feel anxious to meet new people because you have an irrational feeling of fear that they will think you’re stupid. (This used to be my personal affliction) But this again, is not life or death.
Why is it irrational? Because who gets to decide what makes you stupid? This is your own INTERNAL affliction.
Do you have any evidence to prove that you’re of particularly low IQ? No.
Do you have control over enhancing your intelligence? Yes.
Again, will you be victim of a gruesome attack because you couldn’t contribute to the pub quiz? Probably not.
Once more, this does not belittle how you feel. If it causes you anxiety then it is important to address and you must not dismiss it.
However, it’s integral to distinguish what is rational and what is irrational.
When you have no real proof, no experience to tell you that you’re in a dangerous situation or that you might experience discomfort then the feeling is irrational.
If what you’re experiencing is caused by the INTERNAL and not by evidence in the EXTERNAL then it is probably irrational.
Both examples above show how irrational anxiety can be.
Neither situation is life or death and both can take control of these internal thought processes. The person with the body complex can change their perceptions of their body and either learn love their curves or implement a new regime of diet and exercise to get the body that makes them happy.
The person who feels stupid can fact check. What makes them think this and do they have any evidence to support it? This person can enhance their intelligence to give them greater confidence in speaking with others. And, again, this is not life and death.
Unfortunately, anxiety in the modern age now causes us to worry and stress over things that quite frankly, aren’t important.
It has gone beyond its original purpose of keeping us alive through our fight or flight response and we now worry over a whole host of new issues.
Even today, fear and anxiety over these things can be helpful.
As mentioned previously, these feelings are trying to tell you something and they should certainly be listened to. However, knowing when the fear is rational or irrational is the key to responding in a way that is then appropriate and beneficial to us.
Which brings us on to the next point of what does anxiety mean for you when it becomes constant…?
WHAT DOES CONSTANT ANXIETY MEAN?
Anxiety becomes a problem when it lasts for long periods of time and begins to affect your day to day life.
It can be the reason you stop seeing friends or family, making progress in your career, embracing new experiences, finding love, making commitments and so much more.
Anxiety becomes a problem when we aren’t able to experience it in our emotional brain and then use our logical brain to calculate what it is trying to tell us, whether it’s useful or not and how to respond in a way that is helpful to us.
When the emotional brain overpowers the logical brain you aren’t able to RATIONALIZE your feelings and this becomes a problem.
One of the biggest issues us humans experience with these pesky emotions of ours is separating ourselves, who we are, from what we feel.
So for example where anxiety is concerned if our logical brain isn’t able to intercept and rationalize what we are from what we feel then instead of thinking, ‘I feel as though I am anxious about this right now’…
We might begin thinking, ‘I AM an anxious person’.
And with this way of thinking it is much harder to break free from it. When you internalize how you feel, you are not separating your feelings from who you are and this can have some serious damaging effects.
The person who has anxiety when meeting new people because of the feeling that they have surrounding their intelligence might be thinking… ‘I AM stupid so I can’t interact with these new people’.
However, if they were able to separate themselves from their emotions they could reframe it to… ‘I feel as though I am not intelligent enough to speak to new people but I will give it a go and if anything pops up that I have no knowledge on I will go home and learn about it so I know for next time.’
The latter is much easier to deal with, the former is not only harder to break free from but it is entirely unhelpful to you.
If you suffer from constant anxiety then you might find that every aspect of your life is affected.
And I understand this, oh boy, do I!
Your emotional brain runs the show and what tends to happen is that, that small thing that originally triggered your anxiety has grown out of your control and is massively affecting your quality of life.
So, what does anxiety mean for you and how can you manage it?
MANAGING YOUR ANXIETY
Well firstly, I you should check out Anxiety Relief: The Ultimate Guide.
This is a compiled list of 51 tools and techniques to provide anxiety relief. Some are short term; instant fixes and others will take more work but will help you in the long run.
It’s important to find the anxiety relief that works for you while you are in the process of overcoming the unhelpful anxiety loop that you’ve found yourself in.
Secondly you MUST separate yourself from your emotions using the reframing technique shown above.
Understand, YOU ARE NOT YOUR EMOTIONS.
You are how your respond to them and with this way of thinking you will have so much more control over your anxiety and insecurities.
When you internalize these emotions you’re almost telling yourself that they are permanent; it’s who you are and it can’t be changed. This is so difficult to battle with as well as it being UNTRUE.
When you separate yourself from them and can rationalize that it is a ‘feeling’ that is temporary then you have a much higher chance of dealing with it.
‘I AM unlovable’
‘I feel as though I am unloved’
The difference might seem minor but it is HUGE. The first phrase might have you stop looking for love altogether, it’s self-perpetuating – why even try?
The second makes it circumstantial and not definitive and you can work with this. Anxiety feeds off of our fears and insecurities so you must use your logical brain and make sure that you don’t BECOME these fears and insecurities because that is when anxiety thrives.
Thirdly, you must take ACTION.
If anxiety is an extension of fear then the ever present self-help notion that you must ‘face your fears’ has never been more relevant where your anxiety is concerned.
Until you put yourself in the situations that are uncomfortable so that you can come out of it the other side and realize that, actually, you are still alive and nothing bad happened; then you will struggle to overcome them.
It is the hardest piece of advice to give because it means going against nature and this takes courage.
Fear is telling you not to do this or that to keep you safe so it is unnatural to then tackle it head on. However, the secret lies in using that beautiful logical brain of yours to recognize when a fear is irrational.
At first, it’s just going to take some serious guts.
But after a while, you will then begin to see that nothing bad has happened, you will live to see another day and your anxiety surrounding certain things is misplaced.
Drop a comment below and tell me, what is your greatest struggle surrounding your anxiety?
I’d love to hear your stories x