To understand anxiety, we first have to understand what fear is.
Fear is a physical response to a perceived danger. That’s what it practically is in short. You see, evolution is very smart. Nothing ever happens by accident. Fear was and still is, designed to keep us safe. Without fear I wouldn’t be writing this sentence right now and you wouldn’t be reading it. In fact, our ancestors would have died off pretty quickly if it wasn’t for the fight or flight response. You are familiar with that term aren’t you? Well, Anxiety is the inappropriate manifestation of the fight or flight response. We need fear when there is actual danger threatening us. We don’t need inappropriate levels of fear when we’re safe.
Why are we still experiencing fear when there is no actual threat in our environment? Because we are keeping it alive unintentionally. More specifically, we are keeping it alive through our imagination. If it wasn’t for our over-active imagination, then our fear levels would settle back down pretty quickly. It turns into the unnatural response which is anxiety. Fear is the natural response to a danger, anxiety is the response we have to the original fear response. It’s how we interpret the fear response.
This is the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is something programmed into us by evolution. It’s a necessary survival mechanism. Anxiety, on the other hand, is the false fear we experience when there is no real danger in our environment. Anxiety exists solely in our imagination. You could also say that anxiety is an emotional reaction we have towards the fight or flight response. This isn’t to say we won’t experience any physical symptoms of anxiety when there is no threat present because we will. It’s just that in anxiety, we have a physical response to our thoughts and feelings. Not to some threat in the external world.
This is why we add more panic on top of the panic attack in perfectly safe circumstances… Why is this happening to me? What if this panic attack kills me? What if these people can tell I’m panicking? We wouldn’t have this reaction to the fight or flight response if a saber tooth tiger was eyeing us up for it’s next meal. We wouldn’t have the time to question if it was causing us any harm or whether we would appear frightened to other’s.
All of our senses and our minds would be solely focused on the tiger. We would deal with the situation with the appropriate actions, whether that’s fighting or fleeing from it. The smarter choice in this situation would be to run away. It’s only when we experience this high level of fear in the absence of danger do we start to panic and think it’s something dangerous. It’s because we have the mind space to ruminate and dig deeper into something which is a self creation.
We automatically assume something is wrong with us if we’re experiencing anxiety for no reason. This is what I thought. I naturally (as you would do) assumed that I was going crazy or developing some kind of psychotic illness. We perceive our thoughts and feelings in a fearful manner and because we respond this way, we create more anxiety in the process. This is what’s known as the anxiety cycle. I won’t go into too much detail about the science behind anxiety but I will leave a resource link so you can look it up in your own time. Some people find it interesting, other’s don’t. This is why it’s best if I leave a link at the end of this book rather than boring half of you.
We can’t ever get rid of the physiological aspect of fear, nor do we need to. In fact, we wouldn’t want to because as you know, it’s designed to protect us from threatening situations. We can, however, overcome the psychological portion of the fear response, (the self created part) by changing the way we respond to it.
This is why when we understand the truth behind anxiety, we can change the way we respond to it and therefore create an inner environment of healing and ease. Knowledge is power. Applying that knowledge changes lives, it did for me. Understanding that anxiety is not a threat is so important because it allows us to give up fearing it. Why fear something when we know it’s there to protect us, not hurt us? When we make anxiety into an enemy, we have no chance. We unintentionally turn anxiety into something which it really isn’t. Doing this gives the anxiety more power over us. This is when life becomes a living nightmare. Trust me (from personal experience) you do not want to make anxiety into an enemy. Fighting anxiety is never the answer and it’ll leave you feeling exhausted and even more anxious. I’ll speak on this topic in section 3.
Now we know what fear is, I’ll cover what anxiety is.
Anxiety is that part of us which always asks what if. What if I have a panic attack? What if this panic attack is actually a heart attack? What if I pass out whilst I’m around people? What if I never leave my house? What if they see me? What if I get lost? What if anxiety kills me? What if I go mad and end up in a mental asylum? What if this never goes?
Anxiety happens when we react to the fight or flight response in a fearful way. Because we as anxiety sufferers have an over-active mind, we react to the fear response by asking what if thoughts and this automatically creates a new layer of fear in us. A person who doesn’t have that tendency to overthink more than necessary will just brush it off and get on with their day whilst the anxiety fades into the background and melts away.
Unfortunately and frustratingly, the anxiety created from the fear response doesn’t fade into the background and melt away with anxiety sufferers. Someone with an anxiety disorder will create a catastrophic scenario in their minds. They will panic about the thoughts and sensations they’re experiencing. They will try and fight off their uncomfortable feelings which will only create more fear and resistance. Fear and resistance is what the anxiety lives off. Panic breads panic and so this fear of fear is what keeps the anxiety alive inside of us. Looking at it this way, it’s logical then, to think that anxiety is self-created.
We imagine the worst case scenario and this sends a strong message to our subconscious mind that what we’re experiencing is threatening. What happens when the subconscious gets this message? You know too well if you’ve suffered from anxiety long enough. Adrenaline is released into the bloodstream and the cycle of anxiety kicks in. At the end of the day, if there is no reason for us to experience the fight or flight response (no external threat posing a risk to our life), then we are keeping the anxiety alive through our imagination.
Why do we experience physical symptoms during anxiety and panic?
Because our body is preparing us for either fighting off a threat or running away from it. In the fight or flight response, hormones are released into the bloodstream, adrenaline is pumped around the body to help us deal with the threat more effectively. This is why our muscles tense up, our heart races, blood pressure rises, pupils dilate, blood flows away from the less-important parts of the body to the major muscle groups like the arms and legs to give us that extra “boost” of strength or power to help us in life threatening situations. All of these reactions happening inside our body are happening for a reason…. to protect us from ultimately dying.
As there is no real threat present in our environment (99.9% of the time) during anxiety, our attention moves away from the external world and goes to our thoughts and bodily sensations. We then start to question whether or not these could be a danger. Once we make the conscious decision that these are in fact a threat, we respond with more fear. Has anyone ever been harmed by a thought? No, of course not. Has anyone ever been harmed by a bodily sensation? No, of course not. If no one has ever been harmed by these impulses throughout the body, then why do we fear them? Because they FEEL as if it’s the end of the world. Trust me, your world isn’t going to end because of anxiety. Our feelings can be great deceivers. Just because something feels like it’s harmful, doesn’t mean that it actually is harmful. This, fortunately, happens to be true for anxiety.
Like I mentioned at the start, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for fear… it really has saved us from extinction. The bodily sensations feel so uncomfortable though don’t they? That’s because they’re supposed to be. The fear response is an internal alarm system. Since when does an alarm system ever sound pleasant? It doesn’t does it! This internal alarm system we have isn’t much different from having an alarm system in our house. It serves the same purpose. The only difference being is that we feel the fear alarm ringing inside of our bodies.
The alarm system manifests in a way that produces some uncomfortable bodily sensations which are completely natural. It feels really uncomfortable so it’s natural for us to fear we’re coming to harm by experiencing it. However, in reality that couldn’t be further away from the truth. No one has ever been harmed by anxiety. Let me repeat that for reassurance… no one on planet earth has ever been harmed or killed by anxiety or a panic attack.
The only reason we think it’s bad to experience the fear response is because we don’t have anything to be truly frightened of. We think that because there isn’t anything threatening, it must be bad to experience anxiety for no reason, This creates more anxiety inside of us because we are fearing the way we feel. When we fear the way we feel, we have created an anxiety cycle. We also have more time to dwell on the fear response when there isn’t anything to fight or run away from.
All of our attention is usually fully absorbed in dealing with the danger so we don’t have the time to worry about the sensations and thoughts we are not even aware of. When there isn’t any danger present in our environment, then, of course, we have that time and space to worry about how we’re feeling. Worrying about how we are feeling creates more worry.
Let me repeat: The cycle of anxiety gets perpetuated not because of any external factor but because of the response we have to our internal world of thoughts and sensations. We know they feel unpleasant and so our natural response is to fear how we feel and question whether or not what we’re experiencing is harmful. This is what keeps the anxiety and panic alive.
What makes it seem as if external events cause us to respond with fear is because we experience anxious thoughts and sensations in that certain situation, even though It’s just a coincidence. What really happens is we respond to our thoughts and sensations in a fearful manner and then we associate the person or event as the cause for our anxiety. Of course it has to be that person or place causing my anxiety, you might be saying. How could it just be my response? Well, think about it this way. If it was the person or situation causing you to feel anxious then every person would respond the exact same way, but not everyone does.
The external world doesn’t have the power to make us feel anxious. We feel anxious because of our initial reaction to our internal state. Of course, we respond emotionally to the world without conscious thought, but this is appropriate. Remember what I said earlier? Fear and anxiety are two different things. Fear is our automatic response to a REAL danger. If a man jumped out of a bush and held a gun to your head, then of course you would respond with fear without even thinking.
This is the vital ‘fight or flight’ mode kicking in to keep us safe which is inbuilt into us by evolution. It’s the natural self-preservation mechanism.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is created by our psychological reaction to that initial fight or flight response. We perceive the fight or flight response to be threatening. What if this kills me? What if this never goes? This is anxiety. Anxiety happens when there isn’t anything to be truly frightened of. It’s the fear of fear. We fear that what we’re experiencing is going to cause us harm. This is what keeps us in the cycle.
Unless we are in real danger, then it’s anxiety, not fear, that we’re experiencing. Anxiety is purely psychological whereas fear is a physiological response to external stimuli. If, for example, I had an anxious thought about being in the supermarket without even being in one, then obviously, it wouldn’t be the supermarket doing this but my thoughts about it, Or more accurately my fearful response to the supermarket thought.
Even if i was in the supermarket experiencing anxiety and/or panic, it still wouldn’t be the supermarket causing it. The cause would be myself consciously deciding to fear the uncomfortable thoughts or sensations I was experiencing at that time. I would then associate the supermarket with anxiety by the sheer coincidence of feeling anxious in it. Of course, it was my psychological response to my thoughts and feelings that created anxiety. This is why people think the external world is causing them anxiety. It’s understandable to think this way because when we’re in the situation and feel anxious, it kind of gets blurred into one. It’s hard to differentiate between our inner state and the external circumstance. This is only because panic shuts off the rational part of the brain.
However, through my own personal experience of suffering from anxiety for many years, I came to the realisation that it was just myself fearing the way I felt which brought on more panic. Of course it makes our experience of life more of a struggle. This is why we associate the supermarket or whatever situation we were in at the time with being the cause. It’s not… far from it!
So even though we might be having troubling thoughts or sensations about a certain person or event. It’s ultimately not the person or event causing us anxiety but our thoughts about them. It’s not the fact causing us anxiety, it’s our response to that fact. For example, a spider cannot cause us to feel panic, it’s our own response to that spider. If we decide to consciously fear the spider, then we will respond with fear. This doesn’t mean the spider is causing us fear, it just means we our creating a perception in our mind that this spider is of threat to our life, so adrenaline will automatically be released into our bloodstream to prepare us to either a) fight the spider or b) run from it.
If it was the spider directly causing us anxiety, then everyone who came across a spider would feel anxious, but not everyone does. Some people will have a completely different emotional response to a spider, perhaps even a joyful one.
Let’s say you were bitten by a spider in the past, does it mean that the spider is responsible for you feeling anxious whenever you’re around a spider? No it doesn’t. It means you have activated the memory of the spider biting you and how unpleasant of an experience it was. How you respond to this memory (thought) will determine if you’ll experience anxiety, not the spider itself.
Does this make sense? It’s vital that we understand that it’s our response to the external world of situations, places and people that creates more anxiety. We can start to take our power back by no longer playing the victim and pointing the blame finger at external factors.
If we continue to believe that people, places or events are the cause of our disturbing thoughts and unpleasant sensations (anxiety) then we will never be able to reclaim our power. We will always give our power away to that person or this place and life will be even more scary and intimidating. We create anxiety by consciously deciding to fear the thoughts racing through our mind and the uncomfortable feelings in our body.
If we didn’t fear our disturbing thoughts and uncomfortable bodily sensations, then the anxiety would dissipate pretty quickly. After all, anxiety is kept alive through the fear of fear. How do we honestly overcome this fear of fear? Put another way, how we overcome the fear we have towards the bodily sensations we feel during anxiety?
Before I get into the solutions for this. Let me just point out what the common psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of I experienced so you can feel rest assured that what you’re experiencing is anxiety.
Psychological symptoms of Anxiety:
Feeling alienated from everyone
Feeling like I was in a movie
Feeling like I was in a dream like bubble
Constant overthinking to the point where I wouldn’t do anything
Feeling insecure about everything
Wanting other people to fail so I could feel better about myself
Feeling like being left behind in life
Not wanting to move on from the past
Comparing myself to how I was at better moments
Not being able to speak with confidence
Feeling like life and everything in it was an enemy
Having a constant negative attitude towards myself and life
Trying to always please others
Afraid of making eye contact
Afraid of awkward silences
Worrying about messing up in front of others
Panicking about getting lost and not being able to find my way back
Fed up feelings
Suicidal thought and feelings
Feeling like the world is going to end
Strange thoughts about being abducted
Thoughts about harming myself and loved ones
Worrying about being gay
Worrying about being a pedophile
Worrying about being a killer
Inability to concentrate and take things in
Feeling extremely nervous around girls
Feeling extremely nervous and awkward around family members
Inability to say no to people
Constant fear of being stupid
Constant fear of being judged
Inability to feel positive emotions
Worrying about people breaking into house at night
Physiological symptoms of Anxiety:
False chest pain
Lump in throat feeling
Inability to get an erection
Inability to rest
Feelings of coldness throughout the body
Tingly sensations throughout the body
Dull pain down the left side of arm and chest
Tight band feeling around head
Burning sensations, especially in the back of neck
Burning sensation in eyes
Feeling like I always had flu
Hardly any appetite
Inability to sleep
Inability to take a deep breath
Inability to yawn
Tight band feeling around stomach
These are all the symptoms I remember experiencing. I’m sure there’s a lot more. If I can remember any more, I will update the list.
IMPORTANT REMINDER:- All of the physical sensations you feel during anxiety and panic are completely normal and natural. These are the sensations you would experience when faced with a real danger. The Fight or Flight response produces a whole manner physical sensations that help us either fight off the perceived danger or run away from it.
These are not the sign of an illness. They are just sensations of the fear response. The only reason why we fear them and give them so much credibility is because we don’t actually have a real threat present in our lives. If there was a real threat, then we wouldn’t have the time to focus on how we were feeling and create worst case scenarios about our sensations. We would just do what we had to in that situation. We would act very quickly because the spike of adrenaline in our bloodstream would cause us to do so.
We just assume that because it’s not appropriate to experience them that something must be wrong with us. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The best way to deal with these physical sensations is to remind ourselves when we’re experiencing them that no harm will ever come to us because of them. It’s also very important to surrender our efforts to get rid of the uncomfortable anxious sensations and just allow them to play out. The more effort we make in trying to overcome them, the more the anxious sensations will disturb us. Practicing this allowance approach will mean we no longer perpetuate inner disturbances through resistance.
There’s really only one way of freeing ourselves from the fear of these physical sensations and that is through total allowance of them. The alternative is to get caught up in the habit of resistance which is only causes more suffering.
If you are not seeing any of the symptoms that you’re experiencing, then that’s probably because I’ve forgot to include them. Remember, anxiety creates a wide range of strange and sometimes frightening symptoms. If you know you’re experiencing anxiety, then it is safe to say that the sensations and symptoms you’re experiencing are from anxiety and not an actual psychical condition.
It’s always a good idea to have check ups at the doctors just to give ourselves peace of mind. The last thing you want is to sit and worry about what you may potentially have as all this will only make you more anxious. Anxiety breeds anxiety.