Anxiety is the body’s way of responding to being in danger. Adrenaline is rushed into our bloodstream to enable us to run away or fight. This happens whether the danger is real, or whether we believe the danger is there when actually there is none. It is the body’s alarm and survival mechanism. Primitive man wouldn’t have survived for long without this life-saving response. It works so well, that it often kicks in when it’s not needed – when the danger is in our heads rather than in reality. We think we’re in danger, so that’s enough to trigger the system to go, go, go!
People who get anxious tend to get into scanning mode – where they’re constantly on the lookout for danger, hyper-alert to any of the signals, and make it more likely that the alarm system will be activated.
There are different kinds of Anxiety Disorders, so it might be helpful to identify if one of these fits for you:
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD):Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a general, long-lasting worry and anxiety about everyday life, about anything and everything. People with GAD imagine the worst happening (and worry about all the possible worst case scenarios). They believe future events are almost always negative, and they won’t be able to cope ‘when’ these things ‘do’ happen. However, as in all anxiety, we tend to over-estimate the danger, and under-estimate our ability to cope.
GAD can feel overwhelming and can in some ways seem contagious…. it is often identified as the anxiety disorder that makes therapists worry and feel anxious during sessions! These resources are aimed at both GAD sufferers and therapists.
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD):Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder dominated by obsessions (intrusive thoughts, images) and compulsions (rituals, urges and behavioural responses to the thoughts).
- Panic Disorder:Panic disorder is an anxiety disorder where individuals experience repeated panic attacks. The normal physical sensations of anxiety are experienced as “dangerous” to the individual who then believes the symptoms mean they are going to die (heart attack, will suffocate etc).
Naturally, no-one wants these panic attacks, so we start to avoid situations where they might occur, and “fear the fear” – we are scared about experiencing the panic attack. Avoidance can lead to Agoraphobia (from the Latin for fear of open spaces), where we avoid certain places because of the fear of a panic attack and of not being able to escape, which eventually may keep us from going out at all.
- Health Anxiety: Individuals with Health Anxiety have an obsessive preoccupation with being seriously ill.
If someone believes they have a serious illness, such as cancer or a brain tumour, then any innocent or normal physical sensation can be seen as a symptom of that serious illness, and serves to confirm that they ‘MUST’ be seriously ill.
This is turn, causes them to check for other symptoms, read up and find out more about the illness, focus their attention on their body sensations, and continually scan their body for sensations or more symptoms.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can occur following a severely traumatic incident, or a series of less severe incidents. Complex PTSD can be experienced as a result of repeated childhood traumas.
PTSD develops because the trauma experience was so distressing that we want to avoid any reminder of it. Our brains don’t process the experience into a memory, so the experience stays as a current problem instead of becoming a memory of a past event. Each time we are reminded of the event, the ‘flashbacks’ mean we experience the trauma again, as though it is happening again, right now. That is very distressing, so we do our utmost to stop the flashback, and avoid any further reminder of the event, so the event remains un-processed.
Symptoms include flashbacks (traumatic re-living of the event, including images, sounds, emotions and physical sensations) and nightmares, resulting in severe anxiety and/or angry reactions or avoidance of any triggers that may remind the individual of the incident in some way.
- Social Anxiety:Social Anxiety is an anxiety disorder where we believe that others will judge us negatively (“they’ll think I’m an idiot” etc), and it is therefore experienced most acutely in situations when we are with other people. Our attention is very self-focussed – on what we must look like to others, what they might be thinking of us, trying to interpret every glance or other unspoken gesture or expression and what it might say about what they think about us. We become ‘mind-readers’ and imagine that we can correctly assume what others are thinking about us.
Because we don’t want to experience this anxiety (and it’s normal body response), we tend to avoid situations when it might happen, and therefore are unlikely to learn that it could be ok and we could actually enjoy ourselves.
If we do have to go, then we use ‘safety behaviours’ to help us cope, such as trying not to be noticed, avoiding eye contact, holding or fiddling with something, trying to hide (e.g. sit in corner, hair over face), don’t talk, and maybe have an escape plan (e.g. sit by door or in aisle, make excuse to leave early). This all increases the self-focus.
- Phobias:A phobia is a fear of a particular thing or situation. Phobias can often have a first triggering event, which then results in the individual feeling very frightened when they then think about, see or are reminded of the feared object / situation.
When a person with a phobia sees or is reminded of the feared object or situation, their mind says they are in danger, which sets off the body’s alarm system (adrenaline) resulting in our experiencing many different body sensations. These feelings seem to confirm that we are indeed in terrible danger, and we feel an urge to escape. To stop us experiencing these feelings, we will try to avoid seeing or hearing about the feared object or situation.