Understanding how anxiety works can help us to better manage it, especially if it has become a problem in our day-to-day life.
The Fight or Flight Response
Stop for a moment, and imagine you are being confronted by a dangerous animal.
Instantly, you will experience what we call the “fight or flight” response – a surge in your body that will help you survive, whether by staying and fighting, or running away.
Your body prepares for action: your brain releases adrenaline into your bloodstream; your heart beats faster so it can pump blood to your arms and legs; your breathing becomes rapid. All of these combine to help you either stay and fight, or flee from the threat.
However, although this fight or flight response may have been useful to our caveman ancestors, life has changed a great deal since then! Your fight or flight response will still be triggered at times – but the situations will be very different. You could be about to give a speech to a group of people, or about to attend a job interview.
And then occasionally, there are times our bodies may react even when there is nothing to fear – such as walking around a shopping centre, or sitting on a train. These physical symptoms can be alarming, but it is helpful to realise that the physical symptoms of anxiety are not harmful – and you can learn to manage them effectively.
What Maintains Anxiety?
Research suggests that many people who experience anxiety may misinterpret their physical symptoms, making them even more anxious and fearful.
They may have thoughts like “I’m having a heart attack” or “I’m going to go crazy!”. These worrying thoughts are untrue, but can create a higher level of stress and prolong the physical symptoms of anxiety and panic.
Another way that we maintain our anxiety may be through avoidance. In the short-term, it makes sense to avoid situations that make us feel anxious.
However, in the long run our anxiety will arise more quickly the next time we encounter a similar situation. If we continue to avoid it, we will never learn that we can cope and that the anxiety will go away on its own. This can have a significant negative impact on our lives.
There are different steps that can help you with the physical symptoms, your thoughts and your behaviours. It is important to understand the process of anxiety in order to break the cycle between bodily reactions, worrying thoughts and behavioural changes (for example, avoidance).
- Step 1: Reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety by learning relaxation techniques – such as controlled breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery.
- Step 2: Worrying thoughts can be changed by identifying the thought, challenging it, and replacing it with positive and more realistic thoughts.
- Step 3: Behaviour can be changed by gradually exposing yourself to the situations that cause anxiety, and utilising relaxation techniques and positive thoughts to help you stay relaxed and calm.
Where to go for Help
If your symptoms of anxiety are significant and your daily functioning is impaired, it may be helpful to go to a professional for treatment. A psychologist can assess your symptoms and tailor a treatment program specifically to your individual needs. Evidence-based interventions like cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and exposure techniques can be utilised and adapted to suit your goals and preferences.
Author: Tegan Gonczar, BA (Hons), Grad Dip Ed (Secondary).
Tegan Gonczar is a Brisbane psychologist with experience in providing psychological counselling to children, adolescents and adults; she has a passion for working with people of all ages, to help them overcome obstacles, learn effective ways of coping and lead happier and more fulfilling lives.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Tegan Gonczar, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC.
- Australian Psychological Society. (2010). Evidence-based Psychological Interventions in the Treatment of Mental Disorders (3rd ed.).
- Nathan, P.R., Rees, C.S., Lim, L., & Smith, L.M. (2001). Mood Management – Anxiety: A Cognitive Behavioural Treatment Programme for Individual Therapy. Perth: Rigby Publishing.