3. Understanding Anxiety and How it Works (Part II, Chapter 3)
IMAGINE YOU'RE LYING on a beach. It's a beautiful day, the sun is shining and there is a gentle breeze wafting over your body. Sounds of nature fill the
air as you chat and laugh with family and friends. You are surrounded by people that you love and respect and they love and respect you. You feel lovely and warm,
calm, contented and happy, totally relaxed, anxiety-free.
Now imagine a very different scene. It's the dead of night and you are walking alone down a dimly lit alley. There are doorways on either side – who
knows what's hiding in them, waiting to pounce?
You are scared and all your senses are heightened. Your sight and hearing have become more sensitive, able to pinpoint the slightest movement or
sound. Your breathing and heartbeat have become more rapid, you feel light-headed and dizzy and have an overwhelming desire to go to the toilet or throw up. Your
limbs feel shaky and your whole body is now charged with energy, full of anxiety, ready to fight or flee, possibly for your life.
These two scenes represent either end of the anxiety scale. In the first we feel warm, secure and safe; we are fully relaxed. In the second we are really
anxious, highly alert and scared. We are prepared for danger.
* * *
Anxiety is a survival instinct that has evolved over millions of years in order to protect us from getting hurt. It is a series of
reflexes and responses involving thoughts and feelings that affect our mind and body as we become prepared to avoid or deal with dangerous situations.
Every single person on the planet has anxiety. It's an essential part of human make up designed to keep us alive and it does this in two main ways:-
Firstly, it helps prepare our body for action, making us more alert, ready to fight or flee from any danger or threat to our survival. Often referred to as
the 'fight-or-flight response' this is responsible for the direct physical sensations (such as rapid heartbeat, fast breathing, being jittery and on-edge, trembling
etc.) that we feel when we are anxious. In real, imminent danger we can go from being totally relaxed to extremely anxious in an instant, which is panic.
Initiated by the release of adrenaline from the adrenal gland the moment we perceive any danger, this fight-or-flight response explains most all of the
physical anxiety and panic symptoms that we experience. Some of the symptoms may be enhanced by thoughts, for example: a dry throat, with subsequent perceived
difficulty when swallowing, may be built up into feeling we are choking, but in essence everything that is happening to our body is a result of it being physically
prepared for action.
Much of this preparation involves the re-directing of resources to the major muscle groups (legs/arms/chest) to provide them with an energy boost for action and
enable us, ultimately, to fight or flee:-
• Our breathing becomes more rapid to get more oxygen (fuel) for these muscles into the blood.
• Our heartbeat speeds up to get this freshly oxygenated blood to the muscles more quickly.
• Blood is diverted from the brain (making us light-headed and dizzy) and from the stomach (causing 'butterflies').
• Energy cannot be wasted processing any half-digested food in our system so we need to get rid of it quickly – either through the mouth (feelings of nausea) or the other end (wanting to go to the toilet).
• Other 'energy-wasting' systems (unnecessary in time of danger) are shut down eg. saliva production, giving us a dry mouth and difficulty swallowing.
• We sweat more to cool down all this energy production.
• The energy boost to the muscles makes them feel 'jumpy' / 'jittery' / 'jelly-like'/ 'on edge' ready for action.
These physical symptoms of anxiety form the basis of problems such as general nervousness, social phobias (in fact, almost all phobias) and panic
Secondly, anxiety causes us to plan ahead for any potential dangers and how we might deal with them. We also imagine any painful
consequences. This is an excellent survival strategy (it's better to deal with a danger or avoid it before we get into the situation) but an unfortunate effect of
this is that we can get nervous and anxious just thinking about certain situations.
A main ingredient in the cause of certain anxiety disorders, this function is related to symptoms such as persistent negative thoughts and excessive
* * *
The physical and mental aspects of anxiety affect us so strongly ("What is wrong with me?") that it may be wise to
examine them in more detail. Let's look into them a little deeper to find out what is happening and why, and in doing so remove some of the mystery that surrounds
A speeding heart is one of the defining symptoms of anxiety. We cannot be anxious with a calm, slow-beating heart.
To most people, heart palpitations mean strong, fast heartbeats and a faster pulse – something we can easily associate with anxiety and panic. However,
palpitations also refer to missed or skipped beats.
For the most part, heart palpitations are harmless but it is very important to have any symptoms checked by a medical professional to rule out physical
causes that may be serious.
Palpitations may be warning signs for heart disease, an over-active thyroid or due to certain prescription medications – problems that require
medical attention. A doctor should be called immediately for palpitations that also involve chest pain, loss of consciousness or shortness of breath.
Non-serious heart palpitations often occur due to external things that we take such as caffeine, nicotine and illegal drugs or may result from vigorous
exercise. These are a direct result of something we take or do, are usually less frequent and don't indicate anything is physically wrong.
Another category of palpitations, whilst not serious in the sense of indicating physical illness, generally occur more frequently, involve both speeding
heart and missed beats and reflect an underlying problem that needs attention. These are the heart palpitations caused by anxiety and panic.
Every year in the United States and the United Kingdom tens of thousands of people visit hospital emergency wards fearing they are having a heart attack...
only to discover they were having an anxiety or panic attack. The strong, rapid heartbeat really did make them fear the worst.
Why does our heart speed up so?
Anxiety and panic prepare us to deal with danger, either to fight or run away (the 'fight-or-flight' response). The heart beats faster to pump oxygen
(fuel) more quickly to the major muscle groups (arms, legs, chest) to provide them with an energy boost for fighting or fleeing. The greater the danger, the quicker
we need energy to take action so the faster the heart pumps.
With long-term anxiety and stress our heart generally beats faster than normal at rest and it doesn't take much for it to increase into the first stages of
panic (a harder, faster beat), which we notice as heart palpitations.
This also explains the 'skipped beats' phenomenon. A heart that is continuously beating faster than normal will occasionally miss a beat in order to
correct the pace.
Breathing Too Fast
In an effort to provide the extra oxygen (fuel) that our muscles need to take immediate action we breathe faster to take in more air.
In a truly dangerous situation this is exactly what we need – extra oxygen to keep our muscles supplied as we use it up rapidly in working them hard
to fight or flee.
However, if we are breathing faster... End of chapter
preview Back to Contents ^
4. Anxious Times (Part II, Chapter 4)
IT CANNOT BE SAID often enough: everyone has anxiety, a survival instinct that's evolved over millions of years, to help protect us from being hurt. It
prepares us to deal with anything that may harm us by avoiding it, fighting or running away. To fight or flee, the fight-or-flight response – it is this that we
come to associate with being scared.
In the past, dangerous things that could harm us (and made us scared) included the likes of wild animals, poisonous snakes and insects, strangers, heights
and confined spaces. Being confronted by any of these could have been life threatening.
In the modern world we no longer face the direct threats of our ancestors. They still exist of course (wild animals, dangerous strangers etc.) and could potentially
kill us in certain circumstances, but they don't impact our lives as they did hundreds of years ago.
Today, the things that make us feel scared are more subtle and vague. Their effects build up slowly over time and include such things as:-
• Conflict with family members
• Conflict with peers and partners in relationships
• Trouble with work colleagues or the job itself
• Money, bills and fear of debt
• Health, diet and the fear of illness
• Violence in the world as reported daily in the news
All the above can make us feel bad, unhappy and miserable for a very long time. They involve threat and a lack of control and start to fill us with
As we go through life there are many situations and circumstances that involve unpleasant experiences and can lead to inner feelings of weakness and
vulnerability. Let's take a closer look at some of the significant ones:-
In The Family
Family conflict is one sure fire way to instil deep feelings of insecurity in a child as they grow.
There has been much debate and research around the influence of parents on a person's emotional health. Parents have gone from being fully responsible or
having no responsibility at all, to a middle ground where other things such as peers, school, society and the media play a major part. And these things do play a
part, a very important part (and we'll come to them later) but nothing affects us quite like our parents. Their genes are our genes and from the day we are born we
are shaped by their beliefs, attitudes and behaviours; we are moulded by their hopes and fears, and the way they make us feel often sets the foundation for how we
feel about our self for much of our life.
There are two very common family conflict situations involving our parents that invariably lead to massive feelings of insecurity. These are parental
conflict and parental criticism.
The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love
...Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887)
Perhaps a truer word has never been spoken. When our parents argue we feel awful, simple as that.
Fighting parents pose a threat to a child's sense of safety. Their fighting instils feelings of insecurity, worry and self-doubt and it doesn't take a
great leap in faith or imagination to see how regular and extreme arguing between parents can leave a child in an almost constant state of distress. It makes them
feel bad and that there is nothing they can do about it – two of the essential elements for anxiety.
Constructive criticism, given and received correctly, can be extremely beneficial. But there are no benefits from destructive criticism. It destroys
children; it can destroy anyone.
Destructive personal criticism is an attack and it's not just the words used... End of chapter
preview Back to Contents ^
5. Understanding Control and Change (Part III, Chapter 5)
WHEN IT BECOMES less about the external situation and more about our self, anxiety can be very difficult to deal with. With external threats we have an
element of control: we can avoid the situation in the first place, flee from it or fight our way through it. These are classic responses; exactly what anxiety is
designed for, to save us from getting hurt. But when much of the anxiety we experience is linked to the way we feel about our self, it can seem as though we have no
control at all.
From nervousness and anxiety to panic attacks and phobias; from the obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviours in OCD through to the hopelessness and helplessness
of severe depression... the feeling that there is nothing we can do about it plays a massive part in strengthening the problem.
It lies deep within human nature – the need to be in control of our environment. It must, for our very survival depends on it.
We have an innate drive to understand things that influence our lives so that we can have some control over them, some control over our own survival and
existence. Any situation that we cannot understand or control remains, in one sense, unresolved and anything could happen. Such situations have the potential to cause
us harm and so remain frightening.
This drive has led humans to conquer the oceans, the highest mountains and outer space and we'll search a lifetime to achieve insight into something we
feel has power over us. When we have a sense of control over something, we feel safe for we know we can handle whatever may happen. However, the knowledge that we
cannot control something, in itself, increases our anxiety over it... Back to Contents ^
END OF BOOK PREVIEW
If you have enjoyed this preview and would like to read the book, you can get a copy below.
Taking Back Control
Format: Paperback (Kindle Version)
Author: Terry Dixon