All about ANXIETY - part 1
Anxiety can feel like it is all around us - especially in exam times, or when life throws challenges at us. But WHY do you feel so anxious, what is anxiety FOR, and how do you feel LESS of it? Kate answers some questions we've had in all about ANXIETY!
Hey everyone. So I've had loads of questions in which are all about anxiety and with exams and stuff all going on right now it seemed like a good time to answer some of them.
So here goes: first of all, a little bit of background. Anxiety is just such an interesting emotion because it's actually part of how the normal, healthy human brain works, but it also causes more problems than probably any other emotion. And the reason for that is caught up in what it's designed to do.
So anxiety operates a bit like your brain's smoke alarm. Its job is to get your attention. When something going on in the world around you could be important. It could really matter. It could mean you need to do something. So there's a bit of your brain that's constantly scanning the world for stuff that's like a sign of something that might need you to react or act or change something. Something that might mean there's a potentially bad outcome. A worst case scenario that could be about to happen or could happen in the future. And if that bit of your brain picks something up it triggers anxiety or this chain reaction that we call anxiety to make sure you respond really well.
And it changes a load of stuff in your physiology, is this system often called the fight or flight response which you might've heard of in biology. And it's a system that's set up to make sure that you do something if you need to, but also to make sure you notice and you pay attention to these things that your focus moves to the things that are really important. So the changes in that system feels weird. It feels uncomfortable. It stops you in your tracks. It gets your attention. It makes sure that your thinking brain starts to figure out like, 'What is going on? Why am I feeling this way?' So that if you do need to do something, you're more likely to do it.
And if the situation's really, really dramatic if it's really urgent, anxiety can actually flare up so strong that it takes over, it switches right down your thinking, analytical rational problem solving brain. And you get to the point where you're almost acting we talk about on gut reaction. It's like an instinct. You just feel this urge that's so strong, so powerful. The flaring up of that system is so strong that you just have to do something. You feel this sense of urgency. 'I need to act. I need to react, I have to do something right now'. And sometimes that's a double whammy 'cause you feel that sense of urgency but because your thinking brain is turned right down you can't think 'What can I do? What can I do!?' And you just can't think of anything and you can't problem solve. And it feels like there's no solutions, that you are out of control. And in those moments, it's easy to get drawn into panic, isn't it?
So here are some answers to some key questions about anxiety. Number one, 'Why am I so anxious right now?'. People keep asking me that. And you know, in this moment we're coming out of pandemic. It's been kind of a weird, crazy time. Everybody's anxiety levels are raised just because there's been so much stuff going on. So much that's new, so much that's weird, so much that's unpredictable. And of course there's a lot of potential risk around you know, we're having to make decisions about this virus that may or may not be harmful. We may or may not be at risk from it. We're having to hold decisions and understand things about our own risk but also about risks for people at home, risks for people we see or interact with, it's really tricky. So there is a lot of anxiety around because your brain is using it to make sure that you do the thinking and the work that you need to do to figure that stuff out. So in this moment we are having to hold more anxiety. That is normal, and it's normal every time things change.
Even recent changes that have been about good stuff they trigger anxiety because they do need your brain to figure stuff out or things you need to do differently, changes you need to make to your routine or how you act or react.
So the second question is another really good one in this moment: is 'How do I feel less anxious?'. So let me talk about three key ways that anxiety can become a problem.
First of all, is in moments like this where there's just too many triggers. There's just a lot of anxiety around! That is a bit of a nuisance. And there will be a moment in life where that is your main problem.
Number two though, is just where life is busy or demanding or there's a lot going on. And it needn't necessarily be bad stuff. Sometimes life is really exciting and busy and fun but those things do lift our stress levels because there's just a lot that we're juggling, a lot that we're dealing with. And if you're generally managing a lot, it's like your baseline on that same physiological system rises. So little anxiety triggers suddenly feel like much bigger triggers because you were already quite high up that level already. So we can get pushed into panic by something that normally on a quieter day we would deal with without any problems.
And number three is when something about the way you respond to anxiety that maybe feels like it's gonna help actually makes it worse. So it makes it grow like fanning a flame up into a big fire. And that can be things to do with your thinking or actions that you're taking to try and avoid stuff.
You know, we often avoid something that we're anxious about 'cause it makes us feel better in the short run. But in the long run, it actually grows anxiety 'cause your brain starts to believe that if you ever didn't avoid that thing, then whatever the bad thing that you're scared of that would definitely happen because the only thing that's stopping it from happening is you avoiding something. So sometimes the way that we act and react to anxiety actually makes it worse, makes it bigger, makes it something that is more of a problem instead of less.
So here's a few top tips for feeling less anxious.
Number one: let's recognise anxiety for what it is. You know, it's a smoke alarm. Your smoke alarm does not go off every single time because there's definitely a fire: usually it's a false alarm, somebody's making toast or something like that. So remember that its job is to get your attention and check it out. It's not telling you that the worst is definitely gonna happen.
Number two: remember your baseline, that stuff matters. If you can generally keep that baseline drop down, if you can manage stressful times well, if you can build stuff into your rhythm and routine that is about relaxing and getting away from demand and letting your mind switch off, it's kinda like pulling the plug out in a bath and letting that stress level just sort of drop back down. Brings you down into a zone where you've got more bandwidth to deal with the everyday challenges of life.
So think about what works for you. What helps you to chill out and be careful about the kind of stuff that you might do in your spare time. That's fun and distracting and a laugh but actually quite triggering on that stress system or on your anxiety system for your brain or your body. So gaming in particular, especially like adrenaline games like for FNAF, or Fortnite, stuff like that. Great fun, but actually quite anxiety triggering and actually build up the level on that system rather than drop it down. So think about stuff you can do that's less demanding for your brain.
And then number three is in an anxious moment think about what you can do to hold your nerves in that moment, to start that flare of fear getting the better of you. Try to step in and do something before it grows too big. You know, the bigger it gets, the more your rational mind starts to switch off so it's harder to bring yourself out of it and stay calm.
So step in sooner, do something to reground yourself. Remember, 'This is okay, you've got this. You can handle this. The worst is not definitely gonna happen. This is just anxiety'. Practice something like a breathing exercise or something you can do in the moment to calm yourself down.
And if you can get out of the space you're in just for a moment to break the chain in your mind. Nip outside, grab a breath of fresh air, pop to the loo, find a quiet space, whatever you can do.
Remember, you can be in control of this emotion: it doesn't have to be in control of you.
Now, this is just the part one talking about anxiety. So there's more answers to some of the questions I've had in to follow.
But for now, what do you find hardest about anxiety? How do you feel when you hear people talk about it like I have as a normal, healthy emotion? And what's your top tip for managing an anxious moment?