Anxiety is fact of life! Everybody experiences it at some time. For most of us though, it’s something that we’d rather not have, and mostly consider it to be a negative experience. When it’s looked at like this, then it’s not surprising that it’s something that we try to rid ourselves of. ‘I want to get rid of my anxiety’ is a common thing that people say to me as a therapist.
However, lets consider some of the reasons that we experience anxiety – the ‘purpose’ of it, if you like. Imagine a world where you never felt uneasy, never felt a bit nervous, never felt unsettled, never felt frightened. Some may say this describes Utopia. Yet, feelings of unease, anxiety, and fear keep us alert to danger or threat, and in so doing keep us safe.
Imagine this scenario. You are walking home late at night, in a quiet area, and you hear footsteps behind you. For most of us, this would result in our heart rates increasing, our breathing becoming more rapid, we would ‘brace’ ourselves, and we would become more aware of our surroundings – what we can see or hear, perhaps smell – our senses get heightened. We might get ‘butterflies in our stomach, and start to sweat. These sensations are the result of our body preparing us for action in case we are in danger. Imagine now if we didn’t have these sensations or reactions, if we just continued along, not paying attention, totally relaxed, oblivious to the footsteps that we heard. Supposing the footsteps belonged to someone who intended to harm us. In this relaxed state we would be unprepared to react to protect ourselves, thereby putting us at risk.
Our nervous systems are designed to ‘assume the worse’ in some respects. It’s better for our survival to err on the side of assuming danger to be present, and therefore being prepared to act; even if the footsteps turn out to belong to a jogger out for his nightly exercise. We might get agitated and frightened, but at least we would have been in a better position to respond IF it had been an attacker. If we didn’t get hyped up and it was an attacker, then probably we would have no chance!
For our nervous systems there is one primary goal – survival. The obtaining of this goal is the job of the parts of the nervous system that are not under our conscious control; that go along automatically. These parts control things like our heart beat, breathing, digestion, to name a few; all functions that we don’t have to think about.
Our brain and nervous system is exquisitely complex and amazing! With it we can think, reason, read, write, do maths, sing and dance, digest our food, circulate our blood, get oxygen to all our cells, feel emotions, hug our friends, walk our dogs, understand what another is feeling, solve problems……..the list is endless. But none of theses things would matter if we couldn’t recognise danger or threat and respond to keep us safe.
There is a part of the brain, in the automatic part, that’s job is to scan the environment for signs of safety and danger. Of course, there are things that we learn are safe or not. Some of us may have been curious and stuck our hand in a flame, and learned that it burns, and that Is painful, so we learn to avoid sticking our hands in flames. Some things we learn about from other people. Depending on where we live, we might go through life never meeting a snake, but most of us would be wary if we met one, because we’ve learned that they are venomous and can bite!
Sometimes we learn through associating certain feelings with situations. If we have a car crash, which is frightening, and perhaps resulted in damage that caused pain, then even the thought of getting back in a car is enough to produce feelings of anxiety, fear or panic.
When we come across something that is unknown or unfamiliar, then our nervous system is likely to respond with, at the least, wariness and a tendency to avoid it. That’s why when faced with new situations we can often feel anxious and not really want to do whatever it is.
So, feeling anxious when thinking about certain situations is natural. It’s an indication that our nervous systems are functioning well to try to keep us safe. So, rather than trying to get rid of feelings of anxiety, perhaps we could try to be curious about what it’s trying to tell us.
Of course, some of us experience anxiety to such an extent that it interferes with having a life that we can enjoy. In my next post, I’ll look at ways that we can help reduce anxiety and keep it manageable.
About the Author: Maggi
Maggi lives in a rural location in Lanarkshire with her German Shepherd, Solas. She enjoys nature, reading, dog training and sometimes having a duvet day cuddled up on the couch with Solas, enjoying chocolate (not for Solas though!)