Understanding Anxiety (Part 1)
Anxiety and depression were present throughout much of both my my childhood, and adult life.
They don’t mean a lot to me, but they do mean a lot to me. So it was natural I suppose, to find both becoming important parts of my work as a transformation coach and therapist.
When I look at the world today - our rabid over-stimulation and increasing sense of disconnection - the difficult truth is, that life-turbulence such as anxiety, stress and depression are only going to become more prominent, if we don’r stand-up and take an active stance in support of better mental health.
If you're looking for help with anxiety, like or wanting to understand how to deal with anxiety, then I hope that this research and information helps in some way.
5 Key Take Outs On Anxiety
Anxiety is a massive topic. Sometimes, as hard to understand as it is distressing to experience. But anxiety is actually unique as a condition, so it’s useful to discriminate it from related conditions like fear and stress. I misunderstood it for years and could have saved myself a lot of pain, and I known to look for help with anxiety.
Here’s a summary of the most important points:
1. Anxiety is an emotion, related to fear but different as it's typically future-oriented, and prolonged. It is also distinct from cognitive or thinking activities like worry, as well as physical sensations such as chest tightness or sweating.
2. Anxiety reaches serious levels and becomes a problem when it persists for an extended length of time and in some way, impairs your ability to function, day-to day.
Common anxiety disorders include Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Simple Phobias, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Social Anxiety, and Separation Anxiety.
3. The most common treatments for anxiety include Cognitive Behavioural therapies such as Cognitive Restructuring, Mindfulness-based practices, relaxation techniques like Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Diaphragmatic Breathing, or various psychotropic medications.
More recently however, Rapid Transformational Therapy is proving to be a tremendously effective means of resolving anxiety, by identifying the root cause of why the anxiety started in the first place, interrupting the beliefs that support it, and reframing them.
4. The amygdala is the brain’s threat detection system and is responsible for keeping you safe from danger. Through avoidance habits, it can be trained to red-flag non-threats as genuine threats, leading to hypersensitivity and the experience of anxiety through the process of Fear Learning. Re-training the amygdala to reduce anxiety involves approaching feared stimuli or situations without responding as if they were threats.
5. Regardless of the initial cause, all anxiety is sustained or exacerbated by some form of behavioural or cognitive avoidance; thus, eliminating these habits of avoidance is the key to eliminating anxiety in any of its forms. This is where Transformation Coaching, as supplementary support to RTT can play an essential role. Through RTT, we can identify and resolve the root cause of the anxiety. With post session coaching, we can permanently eliminate habits and retain the brain in a healthy and supportive way.
So, what is Anxiety?
What’s the difference between anxiety and fear? What about anxiety and worry? How does stress or the feeling of being “stressed-out” fit in? What about nervousness? Angst? Panic? Terror? Dread?
One of the biggest obstacles to working through anxiety is to understand what we mean when we use the term. If we’re not clear on what it is, it makes it hard to figure out where it’s coming from and what to do about it.
Defining Anxiety Using the 3 Levels of Experience
When it comes to talking about anything psychological in nature—anxiety included—it’s helpful to distinguish between 3 basic levels of our experience: physical, cognitive, and emotional.
* Physical experiences are bodily sensations: hot, cold, tingly, numb, achy, painful, dry, moist, tense, relaxed, etc.
* Cognitive experiences are mental or intellectual. They’re often verbal in nature. For example, the voice in your head that narrates and interprets your daily life and says things like, “I just know I’m going to mess this up,” “How could she do that to me!”.
But thoughts can also be visual or imaginary—the memory of your father’s face when you told him you wouldn't be following in his footsteps in the City (true story), or maybe imagining that six pack you’re going to have by the end of Feb (yeah, honestly.)
* Emotional experiences are the hardest to pin down, because they’re essentially a mixture of the physical and cognitive. When we’re in the midst of anger, for example, there are usually plenty of thoughts and inner monologue playing cognitively, but we also feel things like hotness, tension, or restlessness. Similarly, despair is often a combination of negatively tinged thoughts or images plus the bodily sense of low energy, fatigue, sluggishness, etc.
Emotions are the subjective feelings we experience after we interpret something cognitively.
Events vs Actions
Both physical and cognitive experiences can happen ‘to' us—our tummy churns - and a thought pops into our head that we need to eat. Soon. These are events.
But we can also initiate both physical and cognitive experiences directly—waving to a friend, working through a problem in your head. These are actions.
Emotional experiences, on the other hand, are strictly events that we allow to happen to us—we feel grief after learning that a loved one has passed away, or guilt after a transgression.
This distinction between events and actions is important because we get ourselves into all sorts of trouble psychologically when we mistakenly assume that emotions are things we can ‘do’.
A key tenant of most theories of mental health (and basic neuroscience) is that we can only change our emotions indirectly by means of how we choose to think and what we do, or the environments we expose ourselves to.
Now that we have our three basic levels of experience—physical, cognitive, and emotional—and their status as either events or actions, let’s place anxiety and some related terms within that framework.
Anxiety and Related Concepts
What follows is a list of the most common anxiety-related terms and how they are distinct. There’s no official party line that defines these terms, so they’re certainly open to interpretation. But for the purposes of this article, I want to define them up front so I at least can be consistent.
Stressors, Stress, and “Stressed”
A stressor is anything in our environment that’s perceived to be threatening or challenging (e.g. a tiger chasing you or an upcoming exam).
Stress is your body’s physiological reaction to a stressor. It’s characterised primarily by the release of adrenaline and activation of the fight or flight response.
The most common sensations associated with a fight or flight response are rapid breathing, increased heart rate and blood pressure, muscle tension (especially chest tightness), stomach tightness/butterflies/nausea, dizzy sensation, perspiration, lightheadedness, and numbness or tingling in extremities like toes or hands or sometimes face. These sensations are all manifestations of your brain trying to prepare you to effectively manage a threat by either running away or fighting (more on this below).
Stressed or Stressed-out are the casual terms used to describe how we feel physically when we are in a chronic or long-term state of elevated stress.
Note that all of these occur on the physical level, even though we sometimes (mistakenly) use the terms stress or stressed-out to describe how we feel emotionally.
Fear is an emotion that usually arises as a response to a perceived threat or danger. We see a dark, curvy shape in the forest, and we feel fear because we consider the possibility that it might be a dangerous snake. But as we get closer, we realise it’s merely a fallen tree branch, our fear subsides. Fear tends to be present-oriented, temporary in duration, and based on a reasonable evaluation of danger.
Similar to fear, anxiety is an emotion that comes about in response to the perception of a threat or danger. But while fear is typically a response to a realistic threat in the present that quickly subsides, anxiety is usually a response to an unrealistic threat—often one that is imagined or could hypothetically happen in the future no matter how unlikely—and it tends to persist in frequency and intensity.
It's important to introduce here some rules of the mind and the subconscious, particularly as it relates to how and why we have these responses to unrealistic threats.
There are many accepted rules of the mind but the 3 most important ones are as follows:
1. The mind will always do what it thinks is in our best interest (to keep us safe).
Note the underlined think. As typically our mind and the beliefs it holds are established by the time we're 8 or 9. These beliefs, good or bad, are then programmed into the subconscious, strengthened over time as the amygdala kicks into action, which then starts to show up in behaviours, and both physical and emotional issues.
Example: if you (like I used to) have a fear of judgement, that shows up in things like public speaking anxiety, it's highly likely that an event happened between the ages of 4 and 8. As innocent and harmless at this event may have been (like bailing on a back flip in front of the school on Sports Day) it hurt enough to trigger the mind to imprint a belief structure and behaviours, to help you avoid the danger (pain, suffering etc.) from expressing yourself in confidently and openly in public again.
2. The mind favours the familiar over the unfamiliar.
If you know someone you who finds it hard to express love and compassion, it's highly likely that neither love or compassion was familiar to them as a child. Money and wealth is another example. The % of people who win the lottery and then end up bankrupt is astonishing. Why? Because having that amount of liquidity was so unfamiliar, the mind was forced to course correct.
3. The mind will always respond to the pictures and words you give it.
This is how we strengthen our beliefs, as well as illustrate the self-fulfilling cycle of the mind, if it goes un-checked. Look at an area of your life that isn't getting the results you want, and watch the images and language you use around it. It's likely you'll find that both the pictures and words fuel whatever the belief is, adding to its resolve and the detail of the blueprint.
The good news, is that with the right focus and support, having an understanding of all this can be a very powerful way of taking control and transforming anxiety related issues.
Panic is a sudden burst of intense anxiety that peaks within a few minutes and often subsides after 10-20 minutes. Panic is typically triggered by a catastrophic interpretation of symptoms associated with the fight or flight response (E.g.: “I’m going to have a heart attack and die because my heart’s beating too fast”). In people who have repeated episodes of sustained panic (i.e. panic attacks), panic is often triggered by worry about having a panic attack. In a sense, panic is anxiety about anxiety.
Terror, Dread, Angst, Nervousness, etc.
These are all emotional variations on fear or anxiety.
Dread, for instance, is similar to anxiety but is often more vague and pervasive, more intense, though perhaps not as acute, and slightly more existential in nature.
Even though we casually use the term worried to describe how we feel emotionally, worry is best thought of on the cognitive level and is a form of problem-solving that tends to be repetitive, fast, negative, and self-evaluative, but is generally unproductive or unhelpful. Worry is almost always the primary factor that sustains anxiety and stress or causes it to recur frequently. It is similar to but distinct from problem-solving or planning
Wrapping up Part 1
Hopefully, this has helped clarify how anxiety is related to but distinct from the many similar issues. Two important takeaways:
1. It’s important to be as specific as possible about how we feel. I think a good framework for doing this is to ask, for any given experience:
A) Is it primarily physical, cognitive, or emotional in nature?
B) Is it something I’m doing (action) or something that’s happening to me (event)?
2. I said before that emotions are harder to define because they are mixtures of the physical and cognitive levels. Specifically, emotions are the result of a specific interpretation of something that happens to us or is perceived by us. The essential word here is interpretation. You literally can’t have an emotion without taking some kind of cognitive action first.
This is good news because even though we can’t change our emotions, we can change how we tend to think and interpret ourselves and the world, even if these cognitive tendencies are longstanding habits. This idea, by the way, is the basis for both cognitive therapy!
Christian Burne is a transformation coach, therapist and life-mentor. Specialising in helping ambitious people resolve life-turbulence and break-through to their next level of happiness, adventure and success. Calm® is simultaneously a destination and methodology, and is transforming 1000 of lives. Curious? Schedule a discovery call with Christian using this link to find out more about how he can help you, or the people that work for you.