What is anxiety? What is its purpose?
Anxiety organises our responses to threats to our life, health and wellbeing. Focuses on our escape from danger. It encompasses feelings of unease, worry and fear – and this includes both the emotions and the physical sensationswe might experience when we are worried or nervous about something. This is related to the ‘fight or flight’ response – our normal biological reaction to feeling threatened. So, for example: pre-historic man used to have to go out and hunt for his dinner, and he may well have come across a sabre-toothed tiger on the lookout for its own, human-shaped, meal. Being alert and able to flee at any given moment was what enabled pre-historic man to survive. We still have this exact same fight-or-flight hormonal and physical response to perceived threats and danger. But the vast lucky majority of us are not under any physical threat, and our perception of ‘danger’ can escalate out of all proportion, leaving us feeling like crap, or gradually becoming scared of and avoiding the activities that we used to be carefree about, because everything is veiled with cloak of fear.
Recent figures (2016) from the NHS show that anxiety is on the rise, particularly among young women. As a mum, you’re more likely to suffer from anxiety if you have suffered miscarriages, or had a traumatic birth, or if you had problems with fertility. Or it may simply have come out of the blue, possibly a symptom of postnatal depression, or a result of being physically and emotionally depleted by your birthing and mothering experience and losing some of your resilience. Let’s have a look at some strategies for dealing with the physical effects of anxiety. Anxiety is a normal healthy reaction. It happens to everyone in times of danger or in worrying situations. When you are anxious, your body system speeds up. In certain circumstances this can be an advantage (e.g. if you are in danger). It means you are ready for action and enables you to respond quickly if necessary.
Anxiety and your body. When we feel anxious a chain of automatic responses happen in our bodies, which prepare us for action. This is called the ‘fight or flight’ response and can be traced back to our evolutionary past. Imagine the primitive caveman threatened by a wild animal. He needs to be prepared for vigorous action: either to fight or run away from the threat. We still possess this survival reaction although nowadays it is often triggered by situations that are not actually life threatening.
The physical symptoms of anxiety include: difficulty relaxing, butterflies in the stomach, shakiness, palpitations (heart beating quickly), difficulty breathing, feeling faint, tense muscles, excess sweating or blushing, needing to go to the toilet more often.
When a person anticipates or encounters a dangerous situation, a hormone called adrenaline is automatically released into the bloodstream. This causes a number of changes in our body which are designed to prepare us to respond to the danger (i.e. by fighting or running away). Our breathing rate increases because we need more oxygen in the body in preparation for increased physical activity. Our heart rate increases to pump the additional oxygen and adrenaline round the body quickly. With all this increased activity, our bodies heat up so we sweat more, which is how the body cools itself down when it is overheating. We need to go to the toilet more frequently and the function of this is to eliminate excess weight so that we can be ready for action. In other words, these changes are anxiety symptoms.
Anxiety symptoms are the body’s automatic response to being in a threatening situation, and are designed to prepare us to fight the perceived danger or run away from it. The problem is that sometimes the fight flight response switches on in situations that are not actually physically dangerous. When the fight flight response switches on in a normal situation, such as in the supermarket, or in a meeting with someone, it can become problematic.
Very often when we have bouts of anxiety they experience disturbing thoughts. For example, we may think something terrible and catastrophic is going to happen, and can’t see beyond that reality. Many people are unaware that they are even having these thoughts until they have been consumed by them, which makes you feel more anxious or frightened. These thoughts are not useful or even true. So once you begin to recognise this type of thoughts you can learn to challenge them. THOUGHTS ARE NOT FACTS. Concentrating on what is actually happening right here, right now, rather than what you think might happen, will help break the charge of anxiety.
Top tips for making friends with anxiety
Remember anxiety is a normal emotion, a purposeful emotion which ultimately aims to look after you and keep you/your child from harm. Look at your anxious thoughts, physical sensations and behaviour habits. Write them down. Understanding what anxiety looks like for you will help you tackle it.
Breathe. Deep breathing is the number one way to switch off your anxiety. Is your anxiety a cat with bristled fur, ready to pounce? See how you can get your cat to curl up and purr blissfully instead. Practise calm, breathing and soften your body.
Feel your fear, and do it anyway. Work out what kind of situations you tend to avoid or cause you fear. And try to actually go towards these situations. I’m not saying actually put yourself in danger obviously, but gently expose yourself to situations that normally you would allow yourself to run from without question. The idea is that you try to remain in the situation until your anxiety gives up and goes home. It’s not the easiest road, but it does work in the long term for reducing symptoms of anxiety by ultimately making you realise that ‘it’s not that bad actually’.
You can also find plenty of other ways to soften your anxiety in The Supermum Myth. How is your anxiety today? xxx