Anxiety is an important survival mechanism. It can prevent us from literally walking into the lion’s den. But what happens when we fear something that is not an actual threat to our survival?
Anyone familiar with anxiety is aware of the uncomfortable feelings that can include a racing heartbeat, tight muscles, excessive sweating, difficulty swallowing, dizziness and shortness of breath. Usually these feelings are followed by self-critical thoughts and feelings of insecurity, leading someone to wonder why this is happening to them. Panic attacks often start with similar symptoms of anxiety and may quickly become physically and emotionally unbearable. The intense experience often leads to a lingering fear of the next episode.
In my experience, many people are frustrated not only by the negative experiences of anxiety and panic, but even more so by the difficulty in understanding why they have these experiences. Whether it is generalized anxiety, social anxiety, OCD, relationship anxiety, agoraphobia, PTSD or panic attacks, one thing is consistent, anxiety is often irrational. It is common for family members or friends of anxious people to instruct them to simply ignore their anxious feelings because they have nothing to fear. However, internally, the anxious person is experiencing similar symptoms as someone that actually does have something to fear. How does this happen?
The sympathetic nervous system produces the fight or flight response and is responsible for the physical symptoms of anxiety and panic. It is activated by signals from the brain in response to a variety of stimuli. The brain’s evaluation process to determine whether a situation is safe or unsafe takes into account both conscious and unconscious inputs from the environment. If a situation feels unsafe, but is actually safe, a signal may still be sent to the nervous system to activate the fight or flight response, thereby creating an inaccurate response to the environment. Repeated occurrence of this process acts in a cyclic feedback loop, reinforcing a strong physiological association between a safe event and the activation of the nervous system. Ultimately, anxiety can become the regular experience during these safe situations.
Anxiety feels uncomfortable, and avoidance of anxiety-producing situations is a common defense mechanism to protect against the discomfort. However, avoidance of anxiety-triggering situations can validate fears and reinforce the brain’s inaccurate response to safe situations. Learning how to safely address the uncomfortable situation can help re-train the way the brain responds to the environment. Over time, the fight or flight response subsides and anxious feelings disappear. Learning how to adjust your thoughts and behaviors to relax your body empowers you to alter the physiologic process and relieve anxiety.
Matt Traube, MFT
Child and Adult Psychotherapy
Phone: (805) 324-4684 and (781) 223-8629