What is anxiety and why do I have it?

It is very common to experience anxiety as a human being in this world.  In fact, I would imagine that most animal species experience anxiety to some degree as well.  We are all built with an amazing fight or flight system (a potent combination of interactions between various brain structures, hormone secreting structures in the brain and body, and the sympathetic nervous system) that is designed to keep us alive.  How does it do that?  The fight or flight system keeps us vigilant for potential threats in our environment.  We remain vigilant by searching for elements in our environment that are representative of threat.  In the animal kingdom, threat can be gauged by the presence of a new animal in another animal’s territory, a larger predator, or even a sound-smell-sight that is out of the ordinary.  The animal then runs or fights to remain alive. 

What Anxiety is and How to to Assess itHumans have similar threat detection signals, but also different in many ways.  For example, we live in communities that are safeguarded by laws, police, and a legal system that penalizes criminal behavior.  Thus, we can walk around in a populated downtown area and not feel the need to hide under a bench every time we see a larger male or female.  Yet we still experience anxiety at times.  And if anxiety is a warning of a potential threat in our environment, then what are we sensing that makes us feel this way? 

Humans tend to have a different perception of threat than those in the animal kingdom.  While we absolutely respond to threats to our physical safety with an appropriate fight or flight reaction, we also have a tendency to respond with anxiety to situations that involve performance, evaluations, novel situations and novel people, situations that are difficult to predict an outcome, etc.  While these do not directly threaten our physical safety, our body can still respond with a fight or flight reaction.  This reaction can be somewhat small, perhaps in the form of mild worry.  Or fear of the aforementioned situations can provoke severe and debilitating panic.  Yet again, our lives are not directly threatened by these situations, so why does our body make us feel this way? This answer can be complex, but I do believe that our perception of events influences the way that our body reacts to events. 

For example, if I have a fear of being negatively evaluated by my peers, then I will absolutely refuse to do a stand-up comedy routine.  It’s safe to say I would not be physically threatened in this situation, but my perception of negative evaluation and its consequences will impact my body’s level of fight or flight response.  In contrast, those who pursue a career in stand-up comedy likely do not experience the same fear of negative evaluation that would produce severe anxiety.  Thus, they are able to get up on a stage and tell jokes to a bunch of people that they don’t know, and still operate without significant anxiety.  The key thread between these comparisons is the “perception” of threat.  Given our perception of threat to our self-esteem, psyche, social status, or other important psychological/social factors, our level of anxiety will increase accordingly.  Therefore, anxiety has become increasingly common in our society despite the absence of physical threats to our safety that we would have a thousand years ago.  In a sense, it has adapted in the human body to respond to threats that do not directly impact our physical safety. 

Anxiety & Mental Health AssessmentsI do not mention this observation to minimize the impact of anxiety in our lives, I simply want to highlight how anxiety has evolved in humans since we have pursued civilized society.  Now we have established why we have anxiety, the purpose of anxiety, and how perception of a person or event can produce anxiety.  So what do we do about anxiety?  There’s a long and a short answer here. 

The short answer: anxiety that exists to protect your life is good anxiety.  You should feel anxiety in situations that involve a direct threat to your safety, and the fight or flight system is an adaptive response to that situation.  It serves a great purpose, and it can very well save your life.  In contrast, anxiety that does not exist to protect your physical safety, and anxiety that is negatively impacting your life can be addressed successfully through therapeutic treatment

There are many ways to treat anxiety (the long answer), but the core of therapeutic treatment is to re-train your body to perceive anxiety triggers in a different manner.  This can be done through behavioral techniques, cognitive exercises, insight-oriented talk therapy, and many other modalities of therapy.  But if therapy is effective, it will have trained your body to perceive things in a different light.  And thus, enable your body to react in a different manner that is much less severe and debilitating.

In short, we all have anxiety or worry to some degree.  It is normal, and you should not shame yourself for feeling a physical experience that is common to all humans.  But if anxiety is keeping you from fulfilling your potential or participating in experiences that you deem valuable, then therapy is a great option to get your body back on track and let you feel better about living. Reach out to the clinical psychologists here at Brain & Body Integration to book an anxiety assessment to see if you have anxiety or not. We can give you the official word about your symptoms and provide you with options for treatment. Call now!

About Ryan Cole