What is anxiety?

What is “anxiety?”

Do you find it harder to concentrate than normal? Are you more jumpy than usual? More likely to fly off the handle about something small? Have your eating or sleeping habits changed? Do you find your mind replaying the worst case scenario over and over again? Do you need the toilet more than you would like to admit…

These are just some of the ways people can experience “anxiety” and to be honest, if you are a forces spouse living through a pandemic, it is very likely that you recognise these in yourself. I know I do.

Anxiety is part of your brain’s arsenal of defensive weapons. It exists to keep you safe in a threatening world of lions, tigers and bears. It is NOT an illness. It is an essential part of being human.

Why we need anxiety

When the brain notices something it thinks could hurt you it activates a really ancient system that is designed to pump you full of helpful hormones that give you the energy you need to run away, divert energy away from tasks that are not directly linked to survival (like digesting food) and focus your brain on the kind of activities that are most likely to get you out of a very tight spot. In this “threat mode” our minds become brilliant at scanning for danger, imagining all the terrible things that could happen to us if we aren’t careful and reacting quickly to incoming threats with fight, flight or freeze responses.  This is EXACTLY what you would want to happen if there were a sabre tooth tiger at the mouth of your cave.

Unfortunately, in order to be so efficient at survival skills, other parts of the brain and the body get switched off. This means that when we are in “threat mode” it is hard for us to think creatively, problem solve and connect with other people so it is probably not what you want to happen when the “threat” is the news that your spouse is being sent away for nine months in the middle of a pandemic and you need to figure out what the hell you are going to do about work, childcare and life.

Why does anxiety sometimes get out of control? Tricky brain (old vs new parts of the brain)

In my last blog post I talked about the fact that the older parts of the brain don’t realise that the newer parts exist. Just to recap quickly, this causes all kinds of problems as when we are in threat mode and start imagining the worst case scenarios, the mind will then react to our thoughts as though they are really happening. So if you imagine that you are going to lose your job, for example, your body will start to react as though that has really happened. This can then cause an “anxiety loop” as your old brain then notices that your heart is pumping hard and you are sweating and thinks there must be something AWFUL going on so gives you even more threat mode hormones to keep you on high alert.

And so it continues…

This is also why too much coffee can make you anxious. Your heart rate increases due to the caffeine but your old brain doesn’t understand the delights of Starbucks so assumes you must be scared of something and activates an anxiety response.  SO helpful!

So we just have to put up with anxiety?!

Yes, we do. Anxiety is fundamental to keeping ourselves alive. Without it you wouldn’t have the ability to respond to anything quickly. Anxiety has saved my children’s lives many times. The most obvious example was a few weeks ago when my daughter (3.5) decided she wanted to cross the road, even though it was very busy with fast moving cars and heavy goods vehicles. She broke away from me and bolted just as I bent down to get a tone out of my son’s shoe. It was anxiety that gave me the jolt of terror, propelled me with lightening speed towards her and gave me the superhuman strength to lift her with one hand (with another toddler under the other arm) to safety. There was a fraction of a second before she would have suffered life changing injuries, or worse. THANK YOU ANXIETY.

But, just because we need it, this does not mean we have to give anxiety permission to ruin our lives. Anxiety is there to serve you. If it is getting in your way and stopping you from living the life you want to live then we need to train the mind to deal with it differently.