No matter who you are, you have experienced anxiety at some stage in your life. As humans, our brains are hardwired to be alert for threat. We are prone to negative, or worrisome thoughts. It can make us feel nervous, restless or tense, and we can experience feelings of impending danger, panic or doom. These, among other things, are the symptoms of anxiety. Anxiety is both a blessing and a curse, as without it, we would not survive. With uncontrolled, or misguided anxiety, however, we can be left stuck, isolated, fearful, and helpless.
Anxiety is the body’s response to situations that we interpret as threatening
There are many different strands of anxiety, each with their own characteristics and triggers. One thing they all have in common is how they make our bodies react. Anxiety is the body’s response to situations that we interpret as threatening. Our very distant ancestors would have used this to escape from, or fight off wild animals, or attacks from other tribes. These days, however, we very rarely need anxiety to help us in life-threatening situations. The vast majority of anxiety we feel on a day to day basis is created in our own minds. It’s always future based, and we are usually imagining bad things happening to us, or around us.
So, whether it is the Sunday night before a busy week in work, an upcoming social situation where we might perceive potential judgement, or a busy bus, where we could feel panic coming on, these very different situations will activate the same response system in our body that our ancestors used to keep them safe from danger.
The Threat System (Fight or Flight)
The Threat System, or as it is more commonly known, Fight or Flight, is our body’s mechanism to prepare us to stand our ground and get ready to fight, or, if we don’t fancy our chances, get the hell out of there.
Either way, we need to be ready to move. All animals have evolved to react this way to brief and acute distress. This can be seen in action in any back garden on any bird feeder. Watch any small bird land to eat. It doesn’t kick back, pop peanuts into its mouth and admire its surroundings. It is hyper-alert, constantly scanning the air and ground. The first sign of any movement and it will fly off in an instant. This is anxiety keeping that bird alive. Whereas we have the same system to protect us in physical emergencies, we activate it for days, weeks, even months at a time. worrying about what people think about us, relationships, promotions, and any other worries of the day.
I have read two different books that have given very good analogies to best understand the damage this can cause. Paul Tough, in How Children Succeed (2012), describes what he calls the firehouse effect. He sees our threat system like our bodies having a firehouse full of powerful fire engines. Each engine ready to go, at a moment’s notice, in the event of an acute physical emergency. We have these fire engines running all the time, however. The harm caused from kicking in doors, breaking windows, and hosing down walls will have a more damaging effect than the original threat we are worried about.
Robert Sapolsky (Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers, 1994) sees this same problem in the emergence of many stress related diseases. Like Tough, Sapolsky believes that having this stress response running all the time is a problem. It is not that the stress response will run out, but rather he sees it like two elephants on a seesaw. The system is operating, but under enormous strain, which has to have damaging effects in the long run.
Symptoms of Anxiety (The Threat System and our bodies)
a lot of our stress can be caused by misreading what is going on in our bodies during this fight or flight response
So, how does this all play out in our bodies? Well, this is so important for those who suffer from anxiety. A lot of our stress can be caused by misreading the symptoms of anxiety. What is going on in our bodies during this fight or flight response is key to what we feel when anxious. So, here are some of the sensations that we can feel when the threat system is activated:
- Pounding heart – our heart beats faster to pump more blood to our muscles for action
- Shortness of breath – we take quicker, shallower breathes to take in more oxygen
- Dizzy or lightheaded – if we do not move into action this extra oxygen can cause dizziness
- Nausea or butterflies – blood diverted away from digestive system and to muscles
- Needing to go to the toilet – Bladder relaxes, as body may need to drop excess liquids
- Hands cold – blood diverted to muscles
- Hands sweaty – body cooling down to be more efficient
- Muscles tense – all our muscles prepare to fight or run
- Dry mouth – body re-directing fluids to where needed most, mouth breathing.
- Vision changes – vision tunnels to become sharper to focus on threat
- Thoughts racing – thoughts quicken to focus on threat and response.
As you can see, any of the above could be misinterpreted as problems with our health. This in turn could lead to further anxiety. It is important to get to know how your body reacts during an anxious episode. We can then remind ourselves during difficult times that this is just our bodies looking to protect us.