When Anxiety goes Bad ...
Once we understand the important role which anxiety has in the way our brains normally function, we can look at what exactly is going on when it starts to cause problems. Anxiety is designed to protect us from harm – but it can and often does actually cause harm when it is causing us to react in ways which are unhelpful. We’ve looked at 3 main functions of anxiety – now let’s look at the 3 most common ways in which anxiety can cause problems.
** Big Fat Lie – Anxiety is a ‘bad’ emotion. You should aim to never feel anxious again.
You might wish that this was true – that by reading this book somehow you could learn how to eradicate anxiety completely from your life. That simply isn’t possible though – anxiety is one of a set of emotions which are essential for the way our brains work. The key is to learn how, why and when anxiety can be so problematic – and how to avoid these common pitfalls.
1 - Anxiety that is triggered too often, or inappropriately.
As we have learned, exactly when anxiety is triggered is determined by the goals, beliefs and plans we have. Some of these are things we all share, such as the goal to stay alive, or protect those we care about. But we all also have a whole set of goals and beliefs about the world which stem from our experiences growing up, features of our personality or are just part of who we are. Growing through childhood and adolescence, we all learn some basic rules about how the world works, and how we need to operate within the world to be successful. These experiences form the rules and beliefs we live by.
For most of us then these rules are accurate and helpful – so experiences like ‘if I am nasty to someone, they probably won’t like me’ lead to us forming goals like ‘I should always try to be nice to people if I want them to like me.’ These are the kinds of beliefs and rules which are helpful in successful adult life. Imagine, however, what happens if your childhood leaves you with some experiences which are harder to makes sense of – say am abusive and unpredictable parent. Imagine a child who tries their best to never ever get anything wrong so that their parent will not yell at them. This child might grow up with a rule that says ‘I must never ever make a mistake’ – because their experience is that making mistakes has very unpleasant consequences. Imagine what happens to that child when grown up, trying to live life without ever making any mistakes. What they will find is that each time they are in a situation where they have - or even just might be at risk of making a mistake – their brain will trigger anxiety.
Sometimes our past experiences have lead us to set rules or goals which simply are not possible. So we might push ourselves incredibly hard to achieve highly in everything we do, or try to juggle lots of different responsibilities without ever making a bad decision in any of them, or we might aim to never ever lose our temper with someone we are caring for ... In all these cases the problem is that our goal/rule is just not possible for a normal human person! We are normal people trying to live to super-person rules! When this happens we are setting ourselves up for lots of anxiety.
“Problems can occur if you are trying to live your life according to rules or goals which are just not possible for a normal human person! If you are trying to live to super-person rules, you are setting yourself up for a lot of anxiety”
-- Echo emotions are when something in the present mirrors in some way something that happened in the past, and your brain triggers an emotion to warn you. The emotion intensity is matched to what happened in the past – so may be totally out of proportion to what is happening now
Another example of when anxiety can be triggered inappropriately is when something occurs which I call an echo emotion. Remember I said that anxiety can be triggered when something about what is going on now reminds you of something significant that happened in the past? Echo emotions are triggered in exactly this circumstance - when something that is happening in the present mirrors some of what happened in that time long ago. If the original experience was traumatic your brain is very hypersensitive to signs that it might be happening again – even a similar sound, smell, or noise can trigger it. Your brain triggers an often very powerful emotion in response to what is happening – an emotion that is often totally out of proportion to what is happening now, in the present. It is reacting to what happened in the past rather than what is actually happening now, and these ‘flashbacks’ can be very frightening and debilitating. These kind of emotions – often accompanied by flashes of memories, can become very problematic and are strongly linked with something called post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD) = an anxiety disorder which develops after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event. Sufferers experience memory flashbacks (which may be triggered by sights, sounds or thoughts which remind them of what happened), physical symptoms of anxiety and difficult emotional reactions which persist for many months (and even years) after the original event.
Finally, there is of course one more much more common example of inappropriate emotions. These occur when an intense fear is attached to something which isn’t really threatening – when people have phobias. Although some phobias develop because of a traumatic experience (so are in a way a kind of echo emotion), some have no logical cause whatsoever. Thousands of people are terrified of snakes even though they have never ever seen one! Other people find that they have developed a phobia of something entirely harmless, like buttons or birds. In fact phobias can develop to almost anything and are often illogical – and we’ll look at how these develop in more detail in chapter four.
2 - Anxiety bonfires
The second way that anxiety can become a problem is when something is happening within your brain that is making it grow. The way your emotions are designed to work is a bit like striking a match. The flame lights up, burns for a short time whilst it is needed, then dies out. So something significant happens, and anxiety is triggered like that burst of flame. Your attention is grabbed, and you analyse what is going on, and take any action you need to. The anxiety then dies out, as quickly as it erupted. But more often, what we experience doesn’t feel anything like a small flame. Anxiety can last for a long time, or even smoulder in the background with no apparent trigger. It can grow very quickly and feel totally out of control. What some of us are dealing with is not sparks of anxiety, but instead great big anxiety bonfires.
Remember one of the functions of anxiety is to trigger your thinking so you can analyse what is going on? Anxiety bonfires happen when we have become prone to thinking in certain ways which instead of being constructive, and helping us to analyse the situation that triggered the anxiety in the first place, actually make the anxiety worse. These unhelpful patterns of thinking are a bit like leaving balls of paper lying around in our brains. Then when the match of anxiety is struck, instead of just burning out, it sets fire to this enormous pile of kindling. Here’s an example of how this might happen in real life – think about these two different people:
Dave is a postman. He loves his job and feels he is pretty good at it. He’s never really made a mistake and he works hard to sort the mail and get it to the right houses when he delivers. There are these two roads on his round with similar names and one of the businesses there get really cross if their mail gets lost. But it doesn’t really bother him – he’s pretty confident that he gets it right most of the time.
Phil is also a postman. He also has a couple of roads on his round with similar names. But unlike Dave he doesn’t really like the job. He’s only doing it because he lost a job he really loved somewhere else. He finds it really hard and often wishes he was back at his old job which he thinks he was much better at. He worries a lot that because he is not concentrating he might make a mistake. In fact there are these two roads he delivers from which have really similar names, and the other week there was a complaint in from some guy working at a business on one of the roads who reckoned he hadn’t got a really important letter and Phil cannot get rid of the worry that it was his mistake. Its just the kind of thing he would do and he’s pretty sure that if he hasn’t already got something wrong, he soon will.
Which of these two postmen do you think is more likely to struggle with anxiety? We don’t know which is really better – or worse – at the job than the other. But we can predict clearly who will find anxiety a problem. This is because Phil’s thinking – and his beliefs about himself, mean that when anxiety is triggered, his worries will build it up into big fires. His head is full of kindling – and he may find anxiety smouldering away even when there isn’t actually anything he needs to be anxious about.
-- “Anxiety bonfires happen when we have become prone to thinking in certain ways which instead of being constructive, and helping us to analyse the situation that triggered the anxiety in the first place, actually make the anxiety worse. These unhelpful patterns of thinking are a bit like leaving balls of paper lying around in our brains. Then when the match of anxiety is struck, instead of just burning out, it sets fire to this enormous pile of kindling”
Most of us, if we’re honest, would admit that we have times when we’re prone to this kind of emotional fire. We’re all more prone to negative patterns of thinking when we are tired or stressed out. But sometimes this becomes more than just an occasional nuisance. Some people find that they are caught in cycles of negative thinking, which fuels anxiety fires so that they never really get any break. Their brain is constantly on the go, flitting from one worry to another. Some negative thoughts (we’ll look at some of the common kinds of unhelpful thinking in chapter 6) can trigger new sparks of anxiety, all of which add to the blaze going on inside your head. It can be very difficult to link the anxiety with any clear cause, and sometimes this means that life starts to feel very overwhelming and frightening. Anxiety blazes can also quickly take over your life.
The Panic Cycle
The third common way in which anxiety can start to cause problems is really caused by one main feature of the way we experience anxiety – and that is just how strong the physical sensations it triggers can be. All emotions change the way we feel in some way, but anxiety in particular can cause sensations which are at best uncomfortable and at worst can cause real physical complications, or feel pretty alarming.
The real risk with anxiety is one of two things. Some people become so scared of the physical consequences of anxiety that the minute they experience a spark of anxiety, and feel the sensations coming on, that itself triggers several more sparks of fear. Of course that makes their symptoms even stronger – which triggers more fear. You can see how this can quickly become a vicious cycle (see figure 1). One man, who was struggling with anxiety related headaches explained it like this: “The trouble is that I know these headaches are so linked up to what I am thinking about them. If I don’t keep myself distracted, I find myself worrying about whether I might get a headache. That worry then brings on the start of one, which makes me worry even more, which makes the headache worse. Sometimes I think the only way to get rid of the headaches would be to take out the bit of my memory which knows I get them! ”
Sometimes this cycle of symptoms feeding anxiety, which then feeds the physical sensations even more, can build up and up, meaning that symptoms become really genuinely alarming. This can lead up to what is called a panic attack.
Panic attack = an attack of intense fear or anxiety which comes on very suddenly. Physical symptoms usually dominate, and sufferers often fear that they are having something like a heart attack.
During a panic attack, the hormonal changes that anxiety triggers cause your heart to beat faster and faster. As well as this, as you become more anxious your breathing rate changes, and you take shorter shallower breaths. This actually means that the levels of gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide change slightly in your blood, triggering unusual physical sensations like tingling in your fingers and feeling faint. Tension in the muscles can lead to pains (including chest pain), and as your digestive system shuts down, some people feel sick or can get stomach cramps or diarrhoea. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, often people understandably become terrified that their symptoms actually are caused by something more serious – or will trigger something more serious, like a heart attack. A panic attack can look very dramatic, and it is not unusual for people to find themselves in hospital as a result as passers-by or worried family call for emergency help.
Fascinating fact – breathing into a paper bag really can help calm a panic attack! This is because re-breathing the air you have just breathed out stops you from losing so much carbon dioxide – so lessens the strange symptoms that low CO2 can cause. Often this helps people to start to feel calmer, because they realise that things are not as out of control as they had thought. However, any relaxation exercise, or just helping someone to think calmer thoughts and take slower, deep breaths will also help – and might be easier than rushing round looking for a paper bag! ?
Physically panic attacks are usually harmless, although you should always see a Doctor if they are something you have never experienced before, just to put your mind at rest and make sure that there is nothing else more serious going on. The real risk with panic attacks is the impact that they can have on people’s lives. If you have experienced a panic attack, it is very difficult the next time you are in similar circumstances, or feel the anxiety sparks, not to immediately become afraid that the same thing will happen again. And of course that fear can itself then trigger a panic attack ... and you’re into the same cycle again. If you are caught in the panic cycle, its very important to break the pattern – ideally before it gets too powerful. But remember – no matter how scary those symptoms feel, you can control them – and they are not as bad as they feel.
Over to you!
The risk with anxiety is not so much about what it might do to you – it is much more about what you might do or not do as a result. So how has your anxiety affected you? Ask yourself – are there things you don’t do now because of your anxiety? Has it ever stopped you from taking an opportunity, or prevented you from being able to do something you really wanted to do?
Here are some more questions to help you to think about the impact anxiety has on you:
-- What would your friends and family say if we asked them what impact your anxiety has on you?
-- If you had a magic wand and could change anything in the world that is currently affected by your anxiety, what would it be?
-- Looking at the three ways anxiety can start to cause problems – did anything jump out at you which reminds you of yourself? Which of these three (it may be more than one or even all 3 at different times!) do you think you fit into??
This is an exerpt from 'First steps out of Anxiety', by Kate Middleton, Published by Lion. Want to read more? Check it out on kindle or paperback.