Do I get very nervous before a first date or very anxious?
Similarly, if I'm breathing heavily, my heart is racing and I have uncontrollable thoughts of impending doom – is it an anxiety attack
or a panic attack?
Nervousess, anxiety and Panic lie on a continuum.
They all revolve around anxiety, a survival instinct which has evolved over millions of years and helps to protect us from getting
Anxiety is a series of reflexes, reactions and responses and it protects us in two main ways.
1. Our thoughts: We think about potentially dangerous situations before we get to them - the greatest form of protection is
not to get into such situations in the first place. This is responsible for the apprehension and fearful thoughts we experience and can be
seen in many anxiety-related problems, where we will often avoid situations that make us feel afraid.
2. Our Body: Anxiety prepares us for action – the fight-or-flight response. We are charged with energy ready to
fight or flee. From mild nervousness through to extreme panic, the fight or flight response is responsible for all the physical symptoms
that we experience.
Some of the symptoms may be enhanced by our thoughts, for example: a dry throat with subsequent perceived difficulty 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
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 – 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.
Nervousness, anxiety and panic are fundamentally the same, differing only in intensity and speed of onset. We can
experience mild, vague feelings of unease and apprehension, being slightly nervous about some distant danger, or be so panic-stricken about
an imminent threat that all we can do is flee.
Perhaps this is best illustrated using the following example:-
Take the man who is scared of public speaking that has to make a speech at his friend's wedding in a few weeks time...
Weeks away, just thinking about the wedding will make
him nervous. Probably only slightly for everything is still some time away.
Days away from the event he'll be starting to get
extremely anxious just thinking about it. The nervousness grows into anxiety, which gets stronger and stronger as the day of the speech
The morning of the wedding he is now panic-stricken,
terrified about making the speech – so much so that he gets drunk enough to face it or makes excuses to get out of it and avoids doing
Nervousness is part of anxiety and to get nervous is to be human. We all get nervous for a reason and it can almost always
be traced back to some situation in life that has made us (or is still making us) feel insecure and