It’s normal for us to get anxious about life stuff.
But anxiety can be much more than an occasional worry for 6.2 billion of us according to the US National Institute of Health[i]. About 33% of the world’s population suffer anything from generalized anxiety disorder, an intense worry you can’t control, to panic disorder which transforms into such a state that you go into a full frenzy you think you're going to die.
There is no quick fix for anxiety.
Even though we know this, we still have a inclination for that magic pill that’s going to cure us of the sort of machine gun anxiety that hits fast and hard where you have heart palpitations, shake, sweat or fear you're going to lose all control. At that moment we will ingest anything to take away the terror.
So Why Am I Anxious And Where Does It Come From?
Imagine you’re driving your car and you suddenly had to slam on your brakes and swerve to avoid hitting a child who’d run out into the road.
You pull the car over to stop at the side of the road and you’re clutching your chest because your heart is pounding, you’re breathing hard and your mind’s racing with thoughts like:
“Oh my God I almost killed a child!”
“What would have happened if I’d hit him?”
“Is he OK?” (You look over your shoulder)
“That was the scariest moment of my life!”
“What would have happened if I’d crushed him?”
The feeling you have over the following minutes is a form of a panic attack. Of course, we wouldn’t call it that; it was simply a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
But imagine if that happened to you every day – if everyday you had to swerve to avoid killing or maiming a child in the road; that you had absolutely no control over those events. Somehow, you have to learn to adjust to the daily, impending event that was going to create a panic attack.
Going out would become a problem. The anticipation would be overwhelming. The memory of all the other ‘slam on the brakes’ emergencies would fill up your head before you’d even left the house. You’d be thinking: ‘What if I hit the child today?’
The thought of trying to keep control of all senses and feelings would be overpowering. How would you cope, day in, day out? Who do you turn to for help? Is there anyone who can actually help you?
Within a few weeks you might be finding ways of avoiding driving in the car or even being in a car with anyone else in the driver’s seat. You may even stop going near roads or even outside.
You’d begin to work your life out to fit in with your fear and isolation. The dread of facing the same situation again becomes unbearable until even thinking about being in the car starts the heavy breathing and sweats.
How Does Anxiety Start?
Anxiety starts in the brain and the brain is always learning (as is the non-anxious brain.) Anxiety starts with thoughts, which can manifest physical symptoms e.g., dizziness, digestive problems, headaches etc.
Thoughts are, simply put, electrical signals going through the brain from one neuron to the next neuron. Neurons activate each other - up to several thousand at one time. Neurons that activate repeatedly forge a pathway between each other.
The more they activate each other the more they connect together like a river bed with tributaries; there will be one main river and lots of small paths splinting off until your thoughts have – literally – sculpted trails in the brain.
Here’s a short video that will explain neurons further. Click the image for the link:
Where Does Anxiety Come From?
Our upbringing and its environment have trained the pattern of these pathways. Random or neutral thoughts have been associated with certain fears which, although there maybe no logic to them, have become connected by consistent activation and the building of pathways.
Let’s look at clowns; a common source of anxiety for many adults.
If you had been scared of clowns as a child, and had never logically challenged this as an adult, you may have a terror of clowns even though you’re no longer a child.
As an adult, even though you know logically they are people with a costume on, you're still scared. The constant thought of a clown being dangerous or sinister has forged a pathway in your brain and you may still have an anxiety/panic attack if you see one.
This goes against all logic, which tells you it’s a person with a wig and make up, and a red plastic nose. But that thought has not fired up enough neurons to create a pathway that overcomes the fear of clowns.
In the same way, once you’ve decided that everyone is judging you as soon as you enter the office, your brain will forge the pathway that locks in and transfers that thought onto every situation that involves a group of people.
Once the brain fixes on a fear, it can transfer that fear to other, often unrelated, situations. For example, if we suffer from a medical scare, the brain may fix onto any ‘out of sorts’ feeling to be a potential life and death medical emergency.
Slight pain in the leg becomes a blood clot or one heart palpitation an imminent heart attack. The fear of dying is the ultimate fear and all anxieties lead to that.
If left untreated, anxieties can go on for years all the while forging deeper and deeper pathways and consequently, more and more triggers.
Every body has different anxiety triggers depending on what type of anxiety they have and what it relates to from the past.
One thing to note is there is a difference between an anxiety trigger and an anxiety cause.
The anxiety cause is something that has caused anxiety to be part of you. Causes are around upbringing, environment and genetics.
People who suffer from anxiety sometimes have parents who also suffered from anxiety. Being raised with people with anxiety disorders can simply educate us to react to the world in the same way (similar to people who are brought up by parents who suffered depression and are prone to depression themselves.
Anxiety Triggers – External
There are some external, environmental anxiety triggers that completely make sense.
They may be stress related to work, finance, health problems etc. We would have been taught how to deal with stressors by our parental influences. If our parents were chilled and relaxed, we stand a much better chance of dealing with external factors. If our parents were highly anxious, this is probably how we would deal with external triggers. We simply learnt this coping mechanism from our parents.
Anxiety Triggers – Internal
There are also internal triggers that come from within us and we might not even know we are activating them. This is to do with our minds and how we process thoughts.
People who suffer from anxiety let their minds take over and focus onto things that make them anxious which, in turn, increases anxiety. This is when we trigger the anxiety purely by thinking about it and this reinforces our panic that may trigger a distress, allowing the anxiety to cascade out of control.
It could be bordering into OCD territory. OCD is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and includes a form of obsessive thinking mixed with ‘catastrophe obsession.’ Thoughts like:
I touched that door, am I contaminated?
I have a lump, will I die?
Did I leave the gas on? Will the building blow up? Will I be held for murder?
I’ve made a mistake now everyone at work will hate me.
People who don’t suffer from anxiety may dismiss a thought that could create anxiety. Taking the health issue as an example, someone who doesn’t trigger anxiety might think:
Oh, I have a pain in my leg. Could it be serious? Possibly but The chance of me having a blood clot is almost zero. I’ll wait until the morning a see how it feels.
My husband Pete was one of these people where is a situation came up that made me very anxious, he wouldn't ‘give it the time of day’ and did not allow his thoughts to dwell on a situation that would make me very anxious. I was the type of person who would catastrophise things and but Pete taught me to reset my thinking and bring my focus into the reality of what was happening right now.
Why Am I Anxious And Can I Unlearn It?
The great news is that, in the same way that our brain learns to be anxious, the brain can relearn how not to be anxious.
With a persistent change of thought patterns we can stop the brain enforcing the neural pathways. If we stop the electrical signals firing other neurons (which eventually creates a pathway) our brain will break the association and stop building new pathways.
Every thought, experience, behaviour and feeling is shaping our brain.
If we’re frightened by clowns then spending a lot of time with friendly clowns or people we know who are dressed up as clowns, or watching someone get dressed up as a clown or dressing ourselves up as a clown, will decrease our fear neurons activating.
The connections between them will slowly disappear until there’s no trigger that activates anxiety when we see a clown. What we see is a person as a dressed up as a clown with large flat shoes.
Studies[ii] have shown that it can take only two days before the effects can be registered.
By repeatedly correlating positive, safe and calm thoughts alongside material that produces anxiety, we can retrain the brain not to be worried, anxious, or reactive to those old triggers.
How Can I Train My Brain To Unlearn Anxiety?
Techniques that involve us changing the way we think can help us unlearn anxiety. There are different types of approaches.
Take mindfulness. By focusing on the breath it slows down the rate of neurons activating each other, simply because we have less thoughts. Studies[iii] have shown it to be a promising approach to reducing anxiety.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy may help and this works by challenging old beliefs and invites us to see a more logical and adult perspective. If we are afraid of clowns, by talking this through with a trained and objective professional, we can see clowns from a different angle and not necessarily the figure of terror we once saw.
We can learn to negate the thought that Mike - dressed up - was dangerous. Every time we see a clown we can set a task to replace the old thought with: ‘it’s just Mike with a costume on!’ We can forge a new pathway with the new thought, which will eventually override the old one.
In the example of driving the car every day with the fear of hitting a child, the adult in us knows that the percentage chance of another near miss is minimal. We also know there’s things we can do to minimise the risk of this ever happening again.
We can retrain our brain to be logical about the facts by having an instructor take us out in the car until our confidence has been reinstated. The anxiety will decrease as new pathways are formed and gradually erode the old ones.
For those of us with chronic anxiety, it’s important to take a step back and ask ourselves: Why am I anxious? And then look at a strategy that can help reduce it permanently.