“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” Corrie ten Boom
I like the wisdom of this quote, but anxiety is not quite the same as worry (although worry may be an expression of anxiety). Nor is anxiety the same as ‘stress’ or ‘strain’ (although anxiety may heighten your stress, and stress may heighten your anxiety). Anxiety is not the same as ‘fear’ either, as anxiety is usually a general feeling rather than something with a clear focus.
The purpose of anxiety
Most emotional states have an evolutionary purpose - a necessary function/benefit for us as weak, vulnerable physical beings in a dangerous world over the millennia. The ability to experience anxiety helps us evaluate and react to the environment around us. It helps us to perceive danger and increase the chances of getting ‘a good outcome for me’. A sense of understanding, both in-your-bones and in-your-mind that you feel unease, that there is a risk of something unwelcome occurring, can help us increase our vigilance, be prepared to take action, reduce reaction times and trigger decisive choice-making.
Our problems start when this helpful facility begins to work in ways that are no longer helpful to us, but instead cause us to suffer.
So, what is anxiety? Why do I 'have it’?
Several factors may be in play: physical factors (e.g. thyroid problems), childhood environment, genetic predispositions, biochemical imbalances (changes in the levels of chemical messengers in the brain), and stress and strain in your life currently.
From a psychological perspective, one way of considering anxiety is our emotional expression towards uncertainty. As we develop in childhood we create our own ‘mental landscape’ - psychological inner-structures that help us make sense of our experience and, importantly, begin to make predictions about the future. At times in life, we might find that the things we have 'taken to be certain’ are challenged by situations that are difficult to predict or control, and so the integrity of our inner-structure is challenged. Anxiety can arise in this space. The structures in our brain that are responsible for threat-management start to amplify their warning signals. This anxious feeling may not be limited to just ourselves and our immediate situation but can be felt for others and also cover anxiety about things we would like to happen in future situations, for ourselves and others.
Anxiety can be understood as a response to a fear of uncertainty. It is an attempt to ward off unwelcome uncertainty, and also acts as a warning that uncertainty is near. We can also begin to fear the fear of uncertainty. This is when anxiety really takes us into its grip.
When acute, the anxiety we experience in our lives is no longer in proportion and certainly not helpful. This can take form in our lives in a number of ways, including phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorders, situational or separation anxiety, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and other such conditions.
Why do more people seem to be suffering from anxiety issues?
The world today is unrecognisable from the world only a few generations ago. An explosion of information and connectedness means we need increasingly complex world-views and nuanced inner-structures to help us navigate what can be an extremely contradictory environment.
Such a lot can be expected of us, and sometimes this can feel pre-ordained and 'mapped out’ for us, in ways that go against our own inner wisdom. This opens the door to many more internal conflicts, leading to insecurity and anxieties. A more congruent, simplified world-view may be an explicit target (or, more often I suspect, a non-planned but helpful consequence) of a positive therapeutic process - and reduced internal conflicts is one reason those with a simpler world view seem more secure.
Anxiety is often experienced as a collective of certain symptoms. Here are a few typical ones, but this is not exhaustive:
· Excess ‘worry’
· General feelings of upset & unease
· Feeling shaky/dizzy
· Feeling like you might faint/pass out
· Thinking unpleasant thoughts
· Thinking that you might “go crazy” or sense of impending doom
· Physical symptoms, including: increased heat rate, heart palpitations, shallow/fast/difficult breathing, muscular tension, dizziness, tightness across the chest, headaches, hot flush, sweating, dry mouth, panic attacks (a combination of two or more of the above symptoms).
The effects of these can be frightening and contribute to further feelings of uncertainty, leading to a vicious circle. Anxiety is very commonly experienced. It is estimated that 1 in 10 adults may suffer from a disabling anxiety disorder in their life, but it is a very treatable and therapy can really help. Check out the link in detail, some useful information is there.
I suffer from anxiety, what steps can I take today?
Therapy can help, and the work may be deep (addressing psychological foundations) and also solution-focused to alleviate symptoms (building on top of the foundations), but would probably cover some personal history and exploration of patterns and triggers that cause a sense of anxiety, and the thought processes that keep the feeling full of such unhelpful momentum. There are various techniques that will help reduce the level of anxiety you feel.
I also encourage you also to take steps to help yourself today. Anxiety in the right dose is intended to help, and it is important to bring this back into a helpful balance. To deal with physiological reactions, you can try deliberately inducing the opposite states. For example, should you find your breathing becoming rapid and shallow, consciously relax the body and bring attention to your hands and feet. Making sure to exhale fully (and leaving a one second pause before beginning the next breath), take three slow, deep breaths into your lungs. Your focus stays split between feet, hands, and the breath. Repeat for a minute or two. Count just to three then start again.Note after a minute your symptoms will most likely have begun to subside. You have brought them under control.
Returning to the quote at the top of the page. It reminds us that nearly all worry is in the future, and this is why I like it. But, while quotes are interesting, unless you can really feel the wisdom that they point towards and then make it real in your life, they are just something we can all agree seems clever, but ultimately no more use than a chocolate teapot - and not something that can help me…
If that is you, then maybe consider this quote instead:
“Yesterday is today’s dream…. and today is tomorrow’s dream”.
Have a think about that for a minute – think about yesterday, with its concerns and challenges, the good and bad bits, the mundane, the interesting, the commute, the supermarket, the argument, the pain or pleasure, the concern or relief. Think how real it all was (and how real every day is while we travel through it). But… how 'real' is it today?
I find thinking about that is quite liberating…