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Don't worry, anxiety is totally normal — and here's why it happens to you

Wondering why you get anxious? Counselling psychologist, Sue Winter, uses Compassion Focused Therapy to talk you through why it happens — and why it’s an essential human response...

Anxiety can be exhausting and debilitating.

You might see it as evidence of an inner flaw and be desperately trying to keep it under control and 'appear normal'. But anxiety is something we all experience, in differing amounts. It is a signal that something might be wrong, and it prompts us to take action.

Anxiety is our brain protecting us

Have you ever watched a bird looking for food? If it hears a noise, it immediately flies off, because that could be a cat looking for a bird-shaped meal. Once no cat appears, the bird returns to feeding.

We have a similar threat system in our brains, below conscious awareness, constantly on guard, ready to respond to any signs of possible danger. It operates on the same 'better safe than sorry' basis — it is designed to assume the worst to keep us alive.

Focusing on negatives is our brain’s default setting

If our brain’s threat system detects something which might be a threat to our wellbeing, it instantly triggers changes in our body and mind so we can respond to the challenge. It does this before we are consciously aware of it.

How strongly our threat system reacts depends a lot on how often it has been set off in the past. If we have experienced many negative events, then it can be set off by anything which reminds it of those past events, as it assumes something similar is about to happen again.

We can also react to safe situations as if they are dangerous if our resources are very low due to hunger, low blood sugar, fatigue or physical pain.

The brain has a range of automatic responses to threat. So that we can run away or defend ourselves, it triggers the 'fight or flight' response:

  • Our brain becomes more alert, focused narrowly on the threat.
  • Our heart beats faster, pumping more blood to our arms and legs.
  • We breathe faster, so our blood contains more oxygen, needed by our muscles to generate energy from our glucose stores.
  • This raises our internal temperature, so we sweat as evaporating sweat cools down our body.
  • Blood flow is moved away from our digestive system (as digesting food is not a priority for our immediate survival), so we can feel a 'butterflies in the stomach' sensation.

If the threat appears too powerful, our brain can protect us by triggering:

  • Submissive responses — we may apologise or not say anything so we are not seen as a threat.
  • Freeze — we feel rooted to the spot, so the aggressor loses interest.
  • Dissociation — our minds 'zone out' so we are no longer aware of what is happening or it does not feel real.

We do not consciously choose the response, it is dependent on past experiences, and at times of severe threat more than one response can be triggered.

Levels of anxiety are increasing

Humans have much more complex brains than birds, so we do not react just to external threats of immediate physical danger:

  • Our brain responds in the same way to emotional threats, such as unfairness, criticism and potential rejection.
  • Our mind can 'time travel', worrying about the past and future.
  • We compare ourselves to others, leading to harsh self-criticisms if we believe we do not measure up.
  • We can become afraid of our anxious thoughts and sensations, and the more we focus on them or try to get rid of them, the stronger they become.
  • We are increasingly aware of modern life stressors: job insecurity, excessive workloads and targets, bullying on social media, and on a global scale, the climate crisis.
  • Our basic needs include feeling connected to others, but the Covid-19 pandemic has increased isolation and loss.
  • Our brains get caught up in emotion-thought loops, our threat emotions triggering anxious thoughts which trigger more threat emotions — keeping the sense of threat going.

As well as the threat system, we have a soothing system which soothes it down, but this is often under-developed. Instead we may manage our anxiety by changing our everyday behaviours to try to avoid becoming anxious, or drinking alcohol, taking drugs, comfort eating. These work in the short-term but have unintended consequences that make life harder.

For alternative strategies see Want to know how to manage anxiety? Start by activating your soothing system.

Please note: The human brain is extremely complex, with everything interconnected. 'Threat system' and 'soothing system' are metaphors, simplifying what actually takes place and there are many different ways to describe the same mechanisms.

This blog draws heavily from the writings of Paul Gilbert, deviser of Compassion Focused Therapy.

Looking for support for with anxiety? Book an appointment with Sue Winter, counselling psychologist.

Struggling with anxiety, stress or life pressures? Book an in-person, video or live chat appointment with one of our compassionate therapists..

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