Alright, so let’s break down what the hell anxiety is anyway. Even if you are a seasoned anxiety veteran, I find that it still benefits people to have a better understanding of how anxiety plays out. I want to stress that you are the expert on your own unique brand of anxiety. Take all this information in the context of your own experiences.
Anxiety can be a bit confusing because it is both an emotion that anyone can experience and it’s a unique class of mental disorders. Let’s talk about what anxiety is and what anxiety is not.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety vs. Fear
- Fear is the emotional response to an imminent threat in your environment. For example, if you were in a store that was being robbed, you would have a very reasonable fear of being harmed.
- Anxiety is an emotional response that happens due to the anticipation of a future threat. Building off the previous example, after you have that terrible experience of being in the store when it was robbed, you might have a profound sense of anxiety when you must walk into other stores in the future. In this case, there is not actually threat present, but you have the sense of anticipation that something bad will happen.
- Both fear and anxiety can be present in anxiety disorders.
State vs. Trait Anxiety
- State anxiety is a temporary state of increased anxiety. The most obvious representation of state anxiety is a panic attack, in which you have a surge of immediate fear and anxiety symptoms that overwhelm you. With state anxiety, you can usually tell that something is “happening to you”.
- Trait anxiety is more of a personality trait. Much like a good sense of humor or being introverted, trait anxiety is a fundamental aspect of your personality. It has more to do with the way in which you interpret the world, rather than a specific event. Someone with a high level of trait anxiety is more likely to have high periods of state anxiety.
- You are not doomed if you have a lot of trait anxiety. This just means that you understand the world in a different way than people who have low trait anxiety. That doesn’t mean that you will be unable to reduce your symptoms and take control back from anxiety.
Let’s Talk Biology
Don’t worry, I’m not going to put you through a full neurobiology course. We just need to cover some of the fundamentals so that you realize you’re not just crazy. There’s actually a biological process happening in your brain that causes your annoying symptoms.
The Fight or Flight Response
The fight or flight response is something that humans developed through evolution to keep ourselves safe. When we were hunter-gatherers, we needed some mechanism to keep us from getting eaten by lions. That’s where the fight or flight response comes in.
In the split-second reaction prompted by the fight or flight response, you get temporary super powers. Your pupils dilate to let more light in, your muscle tone increases, your heart rate increases, your breathing rate increases… basically you Hulk out.
This reaction obviously serves a good purpose evolutionarily, but it doesn’t do us much good when you are in the middle of a presentation or riding in the elevator.
With anxiety, you often get fight or flight responses that are simply prompted by your thoughts rather than a true threat in your environment. No fun.
How Anxiety Works in the Brain
The amygdala serves as the alarm system of the brain. It does not do any higher-level thinking. It simply alerts the rest of your brain that something is wrong. It’s basically just raw emotion. That’s where the anxiety reaction starts.
Next, the amygdala sends that warning impulse to your hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is basically the middle man between your amygdala and the other parts of your brain. The hypothalamus takes the warning from the amygdala and in turn, tells the other parts of the brain to kick into gear.
Anxiety is Not the Villain
It’s important to recognize that anxiety is not the villain. Sure, it makes you feel like shit sometimes, but it’s actually not all bad. As you can see from the fight or flight response, anxiety can sometimes keep us safe. It can also keep us safe in other situations. For instance, maybe your anxiety kept you safe when you were in an abusive relationship and needed to by hyper-aware of your surroundings.
Anxiety often starts from a place of being helpful and then overstays its welcome and makes you feel gross in situations where it really isn’t necessary. So, I don’t want you to hate anxiety, but it is time for you guys to spend some time apart. Repeat after me:
“Anxiety… thank you. I appreciate what you’ve done for me. I thank you for keeping me safe. I thank you for keeping me aware. But right now, I want you to fuck off. I’ll let you know when I need you, but that will be on my terms. I’m taking the wheel now. I got this.”