Anxiety is an extension of our body's natural threat response system, and stems from fear. This is a natural and helpful human emotion that has helped us to survive for thousands of years. Imagine if early humans weren't worried about sounds in the night? Without natural fear driving their behaviour, they would not have been motivated to prepare to face predators or other threats and, as a consequence, would not have survived! So it's helpful to respond to perceived threats in our environment with fear and helpful, preparatory action.
Anxiety, however, is worry when a threat is imagined, rather than present. What if I miss my bus and am late to work? What if they judge me? What if I fail and disappoint myself or others? Rather than being helpful in preparing us for danger, anxiety tends to leave us stuck in our minds, thinking over questions that don't have answers, and creating more potential problems, rather than prompting action to solve potential problems.
For this reason, anxiety has the tendency to go into overdrive: it becomes difficult to control or stops us from doing the things that are important. Anxiety in overdrive can impact our relationships, sleep, mood, physical health and overall wellbeing.
If you feel that your anxiety is out of control or impairing your abilities,it can be helpful to understand what contributes to your anxiety, and how to treat it.
Where Does My Anxiety Come From?
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in Australia and affect 1 in 4 Australians at some stage in their life. How anxiety presents is different for everyone, but can come from a combination of:
Genes – There is a strong genetic link with anxiety, meaning it that there's a strong likelihood that other people in your biological family have experienced similar symptoms to you.
Temperament/Personality – Genes partly determine your temperament and personality. If you have a tendency to overthink, be sensitive, or inhibited, it can make you more vulnerable to developing anxiety.
Early Learning Environment – You may have had a stressful upbringing, learnt the tendency to view situations as threatening from the people around you, or developed certain thinking styles and ways of responding to stress from others in your environment (e.g., family members or friends).
Life Stress – Episodes of anxiety are often triggered during times of life stress or change (e.g., moving house, changing jobs, experiencing illness, when a loved one dies or when there is conflict in your relationships).
The Evolution of Anxiety
The ‘flight-or-fight’ response is the body’s threat response system which has evolved to help us survive in dangerous situations. When we are presented with danger, the "alarm system" of our brain (the amygdala) triggers the release of hormones which in turn trigger a number of physiological responses which help us to either fight the threat, or flee from it (flight). These include our heart rate and breathing changing to pump more oxygen to our limbs so that we have more power to run or fight - this is why our hands often feel shaky when we're nervous!
Unhelpfully, however, this same response is triggered by any threat perceived by the brain. This can be a simple thought or interpretation, like "that person is looking at me strangely - I must look terrible!". For people with anxiety, these thoughts can be constant, which is why anxiety can feel so overwhelming and become so debilitating.
Threats can be physical or psychological in nature. For example, the threat of failing an exam, being laughed at or excluded by others, or damaging one's reputation are all examples of psychological threats.
Anxiety in Overdrive
We liken the fight-or-flight response to an oversensitive car alarm that goes off, even though there is no danger to the car. The fight-or-flight response is our internal alarm system – but sometimes it can get it wrong. The good news is, just like you can reprogram a car alarm, you can also reprogram your brain to judge if a threat is real or a false alarm, as well as learning that you can cope, even if a threat is present. Part of treating anxiety is to learn the difference between a real or perceived threat and to react proportionately and helpfully in response to either.
How Anxiety Distorts Our Thinking
Anxiety can cause us to think about situations in an unrealistic, catastrophic or pessimistic way. These negative thoughts contribute to the vicious cycle of anxiety. Fortunately, we can counteract this by recognising our anxious thinking and learning to assess how helpful or rational this thinking is.
When we’re anxious, we tend to trap ourselves in unhelpful or rigid ways of thinking.
It can help to ask yourself….
Is this a real threat? Or a perceived one?
What other possibilities or explanations can I consider, that could be more likely?
Am I imagining the worst possible outcome?
What would I tell a friend in this situation?
It can also help to try these strategies:
Take a few breaths
The fight-or-flight response will be calmed by taking some long, slow and deep breaths. Try taking 10 calming breaths and see if the situation looks any different.
Name it to tame it
Remind yourself that what you are feeling is anxiety. Remind yourself that the thoughts you are having are just thoughts.
Defer your worry until later
Decide to put your worry on hold for an hour, or a day or more! Tell yourself that if it still feels like a problem then, you can deal with it. Often worries subside when we are not paying attention to them.
Focus on your coping
Think of times in the past when you have been able to cope with a similar situation, thought or feeling. What was helpful?
How Can CBT Help Treat My Anxiety?
Because anxiety is maintained through a cycle of thoughts, physical symptoms and behaviours, making just one small change to the system can have a positive impact on the other symptoms. That is why Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT; the treatment used in all of THIS WAY UP'S programs) is so important. CBT helps you to dismantle the cycle.
CBT involves learning skills to manage your symptoms. CBT teaches you new ways of thinking and behaving that can help you break the vicious cycle of anxiety.
What You Should Know About CBT
CBT focuses on the here and now. CBT helps you to deal with the present, rather than analysing your past. CBT aims to give you the practical skills you need to make changes to your life now and in the future.
CBT involves practice tasks. A key component of CBT is skills practice, so that you can transfer the skills you learn into your day-to-day life. There are 168 hours in a week. One hour of therapy a week (or one hour of working through an online course) will not make much difference if you don’t make any changes in the other 167 hours. By regularly practicing the skills you learn through CBT, you can learn to master them and control your anxiety better.
CBT is not a quick fix. To get the most out of a CBT program with THIS WAY UP you’ll need to allocate about 4 hours a week to go through the lessons and practise the skills shown throughout the program. No one expects you to be an expert right away. It can take time to learn new behaviours, and to challenge unhelpful thinking patterns, but with practice you will notice positive changes to how you’re feeling.
The road to recovery is filled with ups and downs. Many people with anxiety have very high expectations of themselves. It is important that you have realistic expectations about treatment. During treatment, it is common to experience ups and downs. Indeed, setbacks are to be expected. However, improvement during treatment generally heads in the right direction with more and more improvement being seen over time.
Check out THIS WAY UP'S evidence-based Generalised Anxiety Program for people with excessive worry about many things.
If your worry is not generalised, but is more focused on one particular domain, THIS WAY UP'S other programs may be more suitable for you. Such as worry about:
Your health – check out the Health Anxiety Program.
Social situations – check out the Social Anxiety Program.
Panic attacks – check out the Panic Program.
Obsessions and compulsions – check out the OCD Program
A traumatic event in adulthood – check out the Post Traumatic Stress Program
Many people with anxiety can also have low mood. If you’d like to learn strategies for both – check out the Anxiety and Depression Program.
If you're struggling with anxiety, chat to our team at Sonder about getting a free prescription for one of THIS WAY UP's programs. Sonder has teamed up with THIS WAY UP to provide you access to evidence-based, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy programs that help with managing your mental health. If you want to find out more about THIS WAY UP or any of it's programs, head over here.
If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.
Information sourced from: THIS WAY UP
Image sourced from: Getty Images
All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.