Anxiety is one of the top issues us therapists help clients with. It's an emotion that we evolved over time to keep us alive. In this blog I hope to help you understand this sometimes scary emotion, why we evolved it in the first place, and why anxiety is a necessary evil.
Anxiety and the Bear
In the past if you encountered a cave and a bear came out of it, anxiety didn't just save your life by telling you to run away. It also made damn sure you remembered the experience as an emotion so you were wary of that cave, and similar caves, in the future.
Good old anxiety saved your life in the moment and protected you in the future. Most of us don't live amongst bears anymore. This is likely a good thing. The problem is that our brains still have this evolutionary programming. We're still programmed to respond to perceived danger in the same way. Some of us feel anxiety stronger, or are more sensitive to the feelings of anxiety, than others. This means that we can become afraid of the feeling of anxiety itself. Anxiety becomes less necessary and more evil.
Why does Anxiety feel so bad?
Anxiety is very unpleasant because it wants us to listen to it. That's the point of it. Anxiety wants to keep us alive. That's one of the reasons anxiety is a necessary evil.
Let's now imagine that you're at work. Your boss is having a really bad day. Your boss shouts at you. I mean they really let rip. You likely go through lots of emotions. Shock. Confusion. Your boss holds a certain amount of power. They're capable of sacking you. If you lose your job you can't pay your rent, feed yourself, keep warm etc. In a split second your brain recognises you're in danger of losing your security. You feel unsafe. You're in danger of not being able to satisfy your most basic needs to live. Your brain believes that anxiety is a necessary (not evil!) emotion that you need to stay alive.
In this moment your brain doesn't recognise that you could find a new job. That isn't how this system has evolved. Your brain recognises that you feel unsafe. To your primitive brain you're under attack. You feel anxious. You want to get out of the situation. Your boss, and the situation they created by shouting at you, is a threat. Your brain recognises that there's a threat.
Anxiety can lead to Avoidance
Most people, after this experience, would be wary of their boss for a while. Some people might feel anxious around their boss or feel anxious just being in the office. This is because the brain doesn't just generate anxiety in the moment to keep us alive. The brain links anxious experiences with our surroundings. Hence we used to stay away from bear caves after experiencing the shock of encountering a bear.
What are you linking your Anxiety to?
Some people link anxiety to lots of different things. This can lead to a feeling of "life" being dangerous. Of course those who have suffered anxiety and panic attacks may live in fear of the next one. Those suffering with Generalised Anxiety Disorder may have a feeling of underlying anxiety all of the time. A feeling of being on edge. As if they're constantly on guard. Constantly waiting for the next source of danger to run away from. If this is how you feel please note that it is possible to get better.
Some important facts to remember
Anxiety cannot kill you. It would be pretty dumb if we evolved a system that was supposed to keep us alive but actually killed us! It helps to talk about anxiety. To face it. You won't get worse by talking about it, it's likely you'll feel better. Yes, talking about anxiety makes it more real but this is a good thing. When anxious thoughts whirl around your head they seem worse. The more we concentrate on something in our minds the bigger it gets. The same is with anxiety. Talking about anxiety gets it out of your head and then some really interesting things begin to happen.
Getting out of your own head - embrace that Anxiety is a necessary evil
Anxiety might be a necessary evil, but that doesn't mean it has to rule your life. I've seen this in the therapy room with clients and I've experienced it myself. When you talk about the things you're anxious about you gain a new perspective. Lots of clients have said to me "I feel silly saying this but I'm anxious about....." Just read that again. If you feel silly saying you're anxious about something, what does that suggest? Let's do a comparison.
I'm anxious about fighting a tiger.
I'm anxious about fighting a cuddly toy.
Which of those two statements do you think you should genuinely feel anxious about?
It's not what you think.....
The answer might surprise you. A therapist will never, ever judge you on what you feel anxious about. If you feel silly saying something, it's likely you're judging yourself. There is a reason you feel anxious. Understanding your anxiety can lead to you getting better, and hopefully help you to not judge yourself so much. You are not your anxiety. You are a wonderful human being capable of so much. If you feel your anxiety is holding you back, we want to help you move forward. Most importantly though, we want to help you feel happy and content with life.
If you feel your anxiety is more than a necessary evil, that it's running or even ruining your life, it could help to talk. When you talk to a counsellor or hypnotherapist everything is completely confidential. We won't ever judge you. We want to help you realise that anxiety is a necessary and vital emotional.
This blog post was written by counsellor and hypnotherapist Jenny Hartill