by Jenna Murray
Anxiety is normal and it is a built-in fundamental human emotion. Anxiety is important, it keeps people alert and allows them to focus on situations that are challenging or potentially threatening.
For example, if you were going for a job interview, an appropriate level of anxiety is beneficial. Feeling anxious can mean that you know that you should prepare for the interview, or at least imagine what it would be like. And, it means that you will be hyper vigilant in your responses to questions. That is of course, if you were feeling an appropriate level of anxiety.
It’s when anxiety becomes excessive and occurs too regularly that it becomes an issue. Especially when anxiety occurs in a variety of life situations and is disproportionate to the event. And, even more so when anxiety prevents someone from doing ‘every day’ tasks. No one should have to live a lesser fulfilling life, that’s drained of joys and replaced with worries.
However, this is happening in people’s lives every single day. From getting out of bed in the morning to trying to fall asleep at night and at every hour that passes in between. The good news is, there are steps you can take to manage anxiety, first step; you have to want to understand anxiety.
Now for a kind of sciencey explanation as I understand it: that the left prefrontal cortext is the part of our brain that consciously allows us to interact and it’s the area of the brain where ‘higher level thinking’ takes place. This is the part of the brain that makes us act effectively and sensible in every day life. Then there is the more primitive part of the brain which houses a part called the amygdala. The amygdala is constantly alert to basic survival needs and emotional responses. Sometimes this primitive part of the brain happens to override the ‘higher level thinking’ part of the brain. We may start to panic in situations and let our learned behaviour, unhelpful responses and coping mechanisms kick in. However, we can change this with some genuine effort and dedication to dealing with our anxiety effectively.
Humans are biologically hard-wired to feel anxiety, as we are wired to feel joy, sadness and anger. All of these emotions were necessary for human kind to survive. If our cavemen/women did not have these basic emotional responses, the human race would have died out. Every body part has a function and our body was built with a purpose; for the human species to survive. Emotions are as fundamental to survival as physical body parts.
All these emotions have positive and negative elements. The challenges and potential threating situations we face in modern times are very different to prehistoric times. Which means, we now are involved in situations where we often only see the negative impact most of these emotions have on us. During prehistoric times the physical threats that loomed in that era have been mostly been removed, we are now left in difficult situations but feeling inappropriate levels of emotions. There is no immediate appropriate physical response to most daily threats, we are not going to punch someone in work that gets the promotion we want. So we are often left with these heighted feelings that we need to learn to face and accept or to outlet in a positive way.
If you break down joy, anger, sadness and anxiety, it may give you a better idea of the basic level of functioning humans were fundamentally built to do. It helps to put daily feelings into perspective and keep things simple. Emotions are what make us human!
Joy was needed so we would raise our babies after giving birth to them and want to form all types of relationships. Joy was also required so we would want the company of other people, to reproduce in the first place and didn’t try live alone away from our tribe and be eaten by that saber tooth tiger.
Anger caused us to fight a potential threat, it motivated us to fight and overcome threats. Anger made us want to go after whatever it was that caused us to feel angry. That still applies to modern life, we want to seek out and hurt what it is that hurt us. In today’s times we may feel that ager is unhelpful, this is not always the case. Sometimes we need to allow ourselves to feel some anger as that’s what makes situations real. Again, the aim is to try step back and figure out what seems like an appropriate level of anger for the situation. This is not an easy thing to figure out, and there is no exact science or right or wrong answer. We have to take a bit of time out to become calm, collect our thoughts and trust our gut instinct and sensibility. This is always a good time to ask for trusted people’s perspective and advice, until we get more of a feel for whats right. When we are angry our thinking becomes clouded and we can’t analyse and problem solve at an effective level due to the release of stress hormones. That’s why it is always useful to step away from the situation that’s causing you anger and take the time to mindfully breath before you make any decisions.
Sadness was a much needed emotion for the caveman too. For example if a caveman’s child was eaten by the saber tooth tiger, then the caveman would feel sad. Feeling sad thought him the lesson that sabretooth tigers kill people and so they need to be avoided at all costs. As well, feeling sad made him yearn for his child and for that human connection. Sadness is so very hard to deal as it is such an uncomfortable emotion. But everybody can work it over time.
If our cavemen/women ancestors were not anxious at times then they would not be alert and on the watch out for hungry carnivores. Also, they would not have been able to respond quick enough to escape their clutches. Although the fight/flight/freeze response is now more widely known about, people can take the concept for granted and only picture it happening to a cartoon caveman in a self-help book. If you put yourself in a Caveman’s (non) shoes for a moment. See yourself out in the wild, searching for berries, collecting them up as you are walking along. Then you hear a twig snap on the ground, your turn your head but keep your body still so you make as little noise as possible. Then you realise that pesky saber tooth tiger is slowly making his way towards you, skulking and sizing you up for tea. If you die, your clan has reduced its chance of survival by a percentage. Evolution has other plans, and so your body kicks of the anxiety response process. Your body has visually sensed that you are in danger of death. This is when the brain takes over and releases some neurochemicals that get your sympathetic nervous system to react pronto. Sensing this makes your heart pumps massive amounts of blood to your muscles so you can run as fast as possible. Even your pupils dilate so your vision is improved and you can figure out your best escape route.
Anxiety is a built in human survival response to threats, so it will occur in daily life but we can learn to take hold of it.
So basically, emotions are a vital part human evolution. We need emotions, but we also need to be able to understand them if we want to emotionally regulate. However, it is how well prehistoric emotions serve us in modern times that can be the issue we have to learn to deal with.
If you understand why you are feeling anxious then you can take a step back from anxiety-ridden situations and look at what is really happening at that time. Then the next time you are in a similar anxiety-ridden situation you are now aware what is going on from the point of view from ‘looking in from the outside’. And at a further stage of your recovery
Emotions help us know what we like, motivate us and help us to know to communicate with people. Emotions work as signals, they let us know when something is wrong and when something is right, they are indicators that we have to address an issue.
The majority of the time we want to avoid any emotions that are difficult to feel and seek out emotions that make us feel good. But the more that we try to avoid the difficult emotions, the more likely we are to be overcome by them. Even the effort alone of repressing them is distressful. They build up and layer and are waiting for their turn to come to the forefront. So it makes sense to try to learn to tolerate the distressful feeling and co-exist with it. This isn’t always easy but with the right support and commitment to self work, it is possible and it is most definitely worth it. Because when we learn that we can tolerate difficult emotions, we learn we can overcome ED. And everyone has the potential to do this, there is hope in the knowing that we have the power inside us to overcome our adversities.
It may be important to remind ourselves that absolutely everybody has anxiety, our bodies create it every day. However, it is how people interpret and manage their anxiety that makes the difference. Anxiety is not always necessarily a negative thing and restructuring how we view it is important. It is helpful to remind ourselves that anxiety is a bodily reaction and we are the owners of it, therefore we are the ones with the power to manage it. Of course when our anxiety levels are overwhelming and disproportionate to the situation we are feeling it in, then it is very negative. We still have to continue to remind ourselves anxiety is not negative when we know how to manage it. By retraining ourselves to think this way, we take some of the power of anxiety away from it.