What is Anxiety?
From my perspective, anxiety is our inbuilt alarm system. Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. It’s perfectly natural to do so.
The whole point of anxiety is to prepare us for fighting a danger or running away from it. It’s about making us very alert and feeling on edge so we can be ready to take action when it’s required.
This is why people become very hyper-vigilant. Our senses become very attuned to our environment in order to sense a danger.
This is why our eyes dilate to spot any movement which we might not normally see under “normal” circumstances, our hearing becomes sharper to notice any sounds which might usually go unnoticed and even the sense of smell becomes sharpened. Same goes for hearing and smells.
I remember during my “anxiety disorder”, I could pick up on smells that would go completely unnoticed now and I found this pretty disturbing at the time to be honest. But in retrospect, I know exactly why this happened and that’s because my senses were very attuned to my environment.
My brain was expecting a threat when there never was one. Nothing bad ever happened. My brain was responding to my anxiety the same way it would gear the body up for dealing with a true threat.
Also, our heart beats harder and faster to pump more blood around the body to areas like the arms and legs so we can be more efficient.
When anxiety becomes a problem?
Anxiety only becomes problematic for us when it stops being our protector and starts being a tormenting monster. This is done by believing that the anxiety is a threat to our existence. When we mistake the discomfort for danger, we turn our experience into a living hell.
This is really the only problem, mistaking temporary discomfort for danger. The anxiety itself is never the issue, the issue comes from responding to the anxiety in a fearful and resistive way.
The fight/flight response then works against itself because it’s trying to protect us from itself. Of course, our brain doesn’t know this. It truly thinks that there is a real danger present because it is an ancient protection mechanism which usually keeps us safe from just external factors.
Usually, what would happen is there would be a wild animal that would activate our emergency response, but as humans have evolved and are now living in safer environments, we’ve developed a very over-active imagination which embellishes the fight/flight response and thus creating an “anxiety condition” that we get caught up in.
That’s not to say that real threats do not exist in our environment anymore because they obviously do. They just happen less frequently than they used to. When we experience fear in these situations, then it’s safe to say that our imagination certainly isn’t creating it.
Now, the majority of the threats are just imaginary. This creates the vicious cycle that I am sure you are well aware of. Fearing the anxiety leads to symptoms, we then fear the symptoms because of how uncomfortable they feel which activates more anxiety and so on.
Like a cat chasing it’s own tail. Our brain doesn’t know that it’s the anxiety we are afraid of. This is quite funny but definitely not funny when we are caught up in the vicious cycle. What happens is our brain registers our fearful reaction that we have towards our anxiety as the danger.
The brain only has our reactions to go on. It’s watching how we react to our anxiety to determine what level of anxiety is necessary. It’s following the instructions we have given it in the form of a fearful reaction to a thought or feeling we might be experiencing. It decodes this instruction as – “RELEASE ADRENALINE INTO THE BLOODSTREAM IMMEDIATELY TO PREPARE THIS BODY FOR ACTION!.”
This command was something that was sent from the brain to the adrenal gland constantly during times when we lived in very hostile environments. Whenever a lion jumped out in front of us wild eyed and licking it’s lips, this is something that we would obviously perceive as a danger.
The brain would receive this perceived danger signal and send a command to the adrenal gland to activate adrenaline into our bloodstream, thus preparing us to either fight this perceived threat or flee from it. This is the origin of anxiety, the fight or flight response.
This is why I believe that understanding what anxiety is and how it works is the most important thing. It’s the foundation. It comes before anything else. Without this understanding, we are walking on thin ice.
So, keep in mind that anxiety in it’s essence is a safety mechanism designed to preserve our existence, not end it. Refresh yourself with this knowledge whenever you need to because it is KEY.
Rest assured anxiety is completely harmless. No matter how terrible you feel, no matter how much you think you are losing the plot, you are safe and sane because your mind and body are doing everything in their power to keep you safe and sane.
Without understanding that anxiety is harmless, acceptance is pretty much impossible
When I first learnt about the concept of acceptance and actually started to give up the fight with my anxiety, something didn’t really feel right because I was still fearing my anxiety.
I still believed that it was harming me or would lead to harm in the long run. Naturally, this triggered even more anxiety inside of me and kept the cycle alive. So really, I wasn’t properly accepting because deep down I was still afraid of my anxiety.
This is why acceptance becomes easier when we understand the truth about anxiety and what it actually is. Understanding takes away so much fear. When you truly see something in a new way, then it changes everything.
The only thing that can make us think otherwise is the doubts that creep up in our mind from time to time. I used to get these doubts all of the time in the form of what if thoughts. “What if this anxiety and panic actually is harmful and people are just telling me this stuff to stop me from freaking out?”
Naturally, I reacted to this thought/doubt as if it was the truth and because of this, it perpetuated my suffering. Honestly, one of the things that can hold us back during our road to healing is falling for the illusion again which is believing in the lies our anxiety throws at us in order to perpetuate it’s existence.
When you truly get that anxiety isn’t going to kill you, that it’s actually designed to keep your safe, your fear starts to shrink and acceptance becomes that little bit more easier. I believe just blindly accepting our anxiety without having that understanding about anxiety and how it works to keep us safe makes things so much more confusing and challenging for us.
Anxiety isn’t permanent
No matter what we might think or believe, anxiety isn’t a permanent state. It just really, really feels like it is. Every single emotion we experience is designed to be a passing experience. So, by anxiety’s very nature, it is a fleeting feeling state. Everything is always changing, everything is always in constant flux because that is how nature works.
The only reason why anxiety has become a constant experience for us is because we are fearing and resisting it’s presence. But this doesn’t mean that it is a permanent, unchangeable state. If we allow it, then it flows on through like any other emotion/feeling state.
When we feel sad or angry, we don’t try to change the way we feel and try to work everything out, we just accept that this is the way we are currently feeling and before long it will pass naturally.
Sure, we might focus on other things to cheer ourselves up or find something like a punchbag to release our anger, but we don’t usually go inside and try to manipulate or change our thoughts or try to escape from our feelings. We also don’t fear our inner state of anger, sadness or jealously.
Why do we fear our anxiety? After all, it’s just another feeling state. The reason why we fear and panic over our anxiety is because it feels more intense and uncomfortable than the other feeling states like sadness, jealously or anger.
So, we innocently cause ourselves to become trapped in this vicious cycle where we are telling our brain that this feeling state is dangerous to experience which then triggers more anxiety to keep us safe from this so called danger – which isn’t actually harmful to our lives at all. We’ve just convinced ourselves out of fear that it is.
We then tell ourselves that we don’t like feeling this way and we shouldn’t be experiencing these types of thoughts, so we try to do something about our inner state of anxiety. Attempting to change our thoughts, stopping ourselves from thinking them or trying to get rid of them is when we get ourselves tangled up in a mess.
Telling ourselves that we shouldn’t be feeling and thinking a certain way just promotes feelings of unease and tension because it’s going against what is – the present moment of experience. When we give approval to our present moment experience in whatever form that is, whether that’s anger, jealously, annoyance, frustration, apprehension, nervousness, anxiety or whatever, then we make space for new feelings and thoughts to come through.
Why do new feelings and thoughts come through when we accept our current feeling state? Because by default, that’s what the mind is designed to do.
Anxiety is just a wave of energy that has become trapped
“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Picture anxiety like a strong wave. The reason why we panic when this strong wave washes over us is because it feels so uncomfortable and frightening. At the end of the day, it is still just a wave like any of the other waves that come over us like anger, sadness, jealously, contentment, disgust, bewilderment and so on.
These waves wash over us until they fade out and are then replaced by other waves. Everything is in constant flux. Everything is changing.
Sure, the waves will come again, sometimes bigger than others with more force. But the point is, they are still only waves of energy washing over and through us. They really don’t need to be feared or resisted because they are just harmless energy.
Also, the waves of emotion will never go and they don’t need to in order for us to feel well within ourselves. We’ve just innocently been going about things with the wrong approach of trying to resist the waves of energy. All we need is to change the way we relate to the waves of energy washing over and through us.
We just need to let the waves take us in the same direction instead of trying to swim against them like a struggling duck caught up in a strong current.
As usual, if you found this article useful and/or interesting, please share it with others who might benefit from seeing this.
Until next time