This is the first in a two-part post on anxiety. In this first part I explain the role of anxiety, and what happens.
Firstly, I believe that the word anxiety (rather like the terms ‘depression’, ‘OCD’, ‘abuse’ and ‘bullying’) should be used in their proper context and not as part of the throwaway language of our everyday conversations. The casual use of words like these does damage. Firstly, it minimises the pain and suffering of those with the real mental health concerns of anxiety, depression and OCD. Secondly, in the case of the words ‘abuse’, or ‘bullying’ the casual use of these can be hugely destructive. I believe we all have a responsibility to select our language carefully. Whilst we are considering the impact on others that our words have, we should consider that they also impact our own mood and self-concept.
Off my soapbox and on with anxiety. True anxiety.
Existential therapists (like myself) believe that anxiety is a natural part of being in this world. We carry a degree of angst about simply trying to live and exist, in the knowledge that 1) one day we will die and 2) the world is full of pain and suffering brought about by sickness, accidents, loss of income and other such unwelcome events. Joyous isn’t it? Well no. The truth is that it can never be all positive and expecting life to be all fun and joy (or striving for that) is both pointless and problematic. Pointless because it’s unachievable and problematic because we are setting ourselves up for failure by thinking this way. Thinking we can achieve this predicts disillusionment and low mood. Try thinking about life more in terms of the 80/20 rule. The aim is to learn to live as well as we can with this ‘normal’ anxiety.
This natural type of angst or anxiety, and certainly a degree of stress is good for us generally. It keeps us alert to danger, ‘on our toes’, and reminds us to keep trying to fulfil our potential. Often it means that we produce output that is of a higher quality. We’ve all heard about those that ‘work better under pressure’.
But what about when anxiety stops us living our lives?
One example of how anxiety comes about might be the following: When an event or series of events happen that feels threatening, we go into ‘survival mode’. This is supposed to happen and is completely normal.
Sometimes though, for some, this process is experienced so negatively (for example perhaps because it cannot be escaped quickly) that the physiological symptoms become even more of a threat than the original threat itself. What happens next is that we start to become ‘anxious about being anxious’. Often there is an association with nausea or a fear of being sick. This may mean that we now fear doing the ‘usual’ things that our lives demand. Shopping, driving, going to work, going out… etc. At this point the natural fear response has become what we now term ‘anxiety’ or ‘generalised anxiety disorder’ (GAD) and this can have a severely detrimental effect on our quality of life. It is very different to feeling stressed because it can cause any or all of the following:
- Raised heartbeat
- Closing throat/difficulties swallowing
- Sweaty palms
- Churning stomach
- Cyclical thoughts
- Pains in chest
- Nausea / vomiting
The good news is that, whilst we can never go back to being the person that had no idea what anxiety felt like (because of the neural pathways in our brains), we can learn how to live well with it and to manage it.
We have to face our anxieties in order to tame them. Part two will focus on anxiety management.