What is it about Anxiety that makes it scary?
"It felt like I was going to die"
"My worst nightmare - that's the only way I can describe it"
"What if it comes back?"
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"- famous words said by Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Let's look at some of the ways Anxiety can grip our brains:
1. Anxiety makes everything look really bad
And everything means Everything - a strange and unfortunate power that Anxiety has is that it can capture the entire brain. The limbic system overrides all and turns the world upside down.
All of a sudden, the colour red is not a summer rose but blood, that vague, tired look from the shopkeeper must mean that I said something silly to offend him and I cannot show up at the shop again, or every single person saw me walking out of the store really quickly, and I think I'm going to faint if I don't get out now.
2. Anxiety affects the mind and the body
In moments like these, Anxiety takes hold of the brain and leads it into a spin. This spin also affects our nervous system - where else do our bodies get internal signals from except the mind?
Our heart rates go up, blood pumping, feeling flushed, hands clammy or trembling, beads of sweat become so visible to us. In speed faster than light, our brain sends the signal, "If you don't stop feeling like this, something bad is going to happen. At best, we are going to do something embarrassing and everyone is going to see, or worse, we're going to die." We can somewhat logically compute: "Surely I'm overthinking this. But if my brain is thinking it and I'm feeling this feeling, and my physical body is geared up in tension, then it must be true?"
3. Anxiety about Anxiety keeps the Anxiety going
Let's take another look at what Mr. Roosevelt had to say in its entire sentence.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself"
Anxiety when experienced, is often loaded with fear. This unfortunately also includes fear for itself. It is like a horror movie we're watching, the monster underneath our beds, the dark. Once we're in it, nothing makes sense. We do nothing to help because Anxiety has the grip of a superhero pulling himself up from a cliff. Instead, we try to peer through the expertly-placed fingers or see-through cardigan on our faces as the movie goes on. Only accentuating the power of the Anxiety and the belief that there is something to be afraid of.
We know there is nothing under the bed, and that the special effects and makeup nowadays is brilliant and still, our brain tenses the shoulders into a huddle under the blanket and listens out for the anticipated bang or screeching violin.
"No more horror movies for me for a while", we say internally. And the cycle repeats the next time the friends want to catch another one.
When the brain first screens and hooks onto a 'threat' assessment, it generates a response almost immediately. We tense up, heart beats fast, and get the body ready to do one of three things. Almost everyone would have heard of fight-flight-freeze. In response, the brain and the body likely carries through with that response and selects to either confront the 'threat', run away from it or remain in shock/frozen like Mr. Roosevelt suggests.
Problem is, the terrorizing thing that Anxiety almost always is in those few first seconds is what makes us more likely to runaway and hide. Sure, some of us stay and fight to push it down and others react in the deer-in-headlights way too. And so the cycle repeats where there is a constant wonder or worry, "How am I going to respond when Anxiety comes again?" and this fear of that dreadful thing, keeps it even scarier and does not seem to stop.
4. So what can I do if my brain doesn't seem to be listening to me?
Psychologists and researchers etc. have spent some time thinking about this. We know that anxiety affects 40% of Australians at least once in their lifetime. We've also come a long way (in our opinions and research) in thinking about, implementing and revising techniques and skills to manage anxiety.
There's a lot to say about that in other posts too but here's summary of how we can possible help:
Like any invisible, less-understood and terrifying thing - the best approach is to understand, identify, and learn about it and knowing that it is possible to do so with techniques and skills.
If running, fighting, turning away and keeping a lid on it is started to exhaust you, we invite you to speak to a health professional about it and take a chance on trying a different method.
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