Stress and anxiety may feel like the greatest threat to 21st-century life. Understanding your anxiety is the first step to freeing yourself from an anxious everyday existence.
Everyone experiences anxious thoughts and feelings, everyone.
Everyone feels the occasional flutter of nerves in their stomachs or the pounding of their hearts or the sweating of palms.
Yet, for those of us who suffer from anxiety, it can become crippling in everyday life. Anxiety can sometimes feel like it is ruining our lives. It can make us feel selfish, weak, and out of control. And, while anxiety is experienced by the many with little effect, for a lot of people it can be extremely debilitating.
But let’s get one thing straight.
If you suffer from symptoms of anxiety; if you struggle with anxious thoughts, if your anxiety is stopping you from living a good and fulfilling life then I want to tell you two very important things…
ONE – You are normal.
Anxiety is a global struggle experienced by the masses. It does not mean that you are weak. It does not mean that you are out of control. You are not alone. Anxiety disorder is incredibly common (I’ve experienced it myself for many years!) so remember that you are normal.
TWO – You can overcome your anxiety disorder.
I know how it feels when you’re in the midst of an anxious episode. Everything feels hazy and out of control. Your body feels as though it’s taken over and you are powerless to stop it. As soon as that whoosh of adrenaline kicks in you’re stuck in a cycle of being anxious about feeling anxious!
I understand. I’ve been there.
But understand this…
Understanding your anxiety is the first step to recovery. After all, what does ‘anxiety’ actually mean? No matter how lost you feel, you do not have to feel stuck living in an anxious cycle. You can overcome your anxiety disorder and later on we will discuss what anxiety recovery looks like.
To fully understand your anxiety we’re going to start with the basics and leave no stone unturned. Do not let this information overwhelm you.
Welcome it. Work through it at your own pace.
What is Anxiety?
I told you we’d start with the basics!
I know, I know. You’ve heard this a thousand times. Skip ahead, Emma will you?!
But this is important. Possibly the most important thing in helping us understand why we get these anxious feelings in the first place. After all, they feel entirely redundant. They don’t feel useful. They don’t feel helpful… so why are we having these thoughts and feelings in the first place?
Anxiety is the brain’s threat response.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the fight, flight and freeze response by now? Well, this response is also known as the threat response A.K.A our not so friendly friend, anxiety.
This response is part of our reptilian brain. And way back when, when our ancestors were fighting to survive against wild beasts on the African planes and where every day of life was a fight for survival, this reptilian brain kept our ancestors alive.
This in-built system kept our ancestors in a state of high alert so that they could otherwise flee from danger. Or in the case of a particularly brave and well-built human, wrestle with the charging lion.
In this sense, a threat response is needed. The threat response, our anxiety, keeps us alert to any potential dangers in a bid to save our lives.
This is what anxiety is – a threat response.
And what is it trying to do? It’s trying to keep us safe from danger.
But what happens when that danger is misinterpreted? Why do we feel this way when there are no lions, tigers, or bears to flee from?
I’ll get to that in a hot sec…
Understanding How Your Anxiety Works
Alright, so anxiety is our brain’s way of trying to keep us safe. It’s doing its best but in modern-day life, it appears to have things a little skewed, don’t you agree?
So, if we’re not under constant attack and if we aren’t in real life or death danger in day to day life then why is our threat response being triggered and why do we find ourselves an anxious mess on the floor?
The Science of Anxiety
There are two important hormones to talk about when it comes to understanding your anxiety.
Now, I’m not going to get super scientific and geek out on your guys to explain this but it does require some explaining. It wasn’t until I had this explained to me that I was able to think about exactly what was happening in my body during an anxious episode.
Because it’s one thing to feel a rush of nervous energy or a pang of panic but it’s another to truly understand why it’s happening.
In your body, there are two powerful hormones called cortisol and adrenaline.
Now, have you ever felt a rush of panic or a rush of excitement that has come over you all of a sudden? As though you’ve been hit in the face with the sudden urge to do something.
Your heart starts pounding, your breath quickens, you might start perspiring or have a feeling of nausea in your stomach… Maybe it’s because you’ve been startled (like when someone jumps out on you from behind the sofa, not funny) or maybe it’s because you’re about to walk out on stage to perform the opening soliloquy of Shakespeare’s finest.
That feeling is adrenaline. And adrenaline is the hormone that is engaged when we need to take immediate action. So, when that bear jumps out of the bushes, our threat response kicks in and we engage with adrenaline so that we can move as quickly as we can to get the hell out of there!
But there is only so much adrenaline available to us. And, using it is exhausting.
So what we use instead is cortisol.
Instead of thinking now of that rush of adrenaline when in a state of panic or excitement, imagine that feeling that often accompanies anxiety of being on edge.
Feeling uneasy and nervous. Like you’re waiting for something to happen.
This feeling is the outcome of engaging with cortisol. And, when we’re feeling anxious it’s because we are using this hormone. This hormone keeps us in a state of hyper alert.
So, we’re not quite ready to take action. We don’t need to run yet. But we’re in this state of high alert just in case we might need to.
And we do this because when we have cortisol running through our veins we can quickly engage the threat response and quicker engage the adrenaline when we need to get ourselves out of harm’s way.
Now, cortisol and adrenaline are necessary. Indeed, cortisol is helpful in bringing us back to balance following a stressful or fear-induced situation. However, if we are constantly engaged with these hormones we can easily become exhausted.
This is why many anxious people feel drained.
I often felt as though my batteries had been pulled out of me… well, a day of feeling anxious and constantly on edge will do that to you!
The Role of The Amygdala
The amygdala is part of the limbic system and is the hub for threat response. It is the part of our brain that responds to stressful or emotional stimuli.
It is the oldest part of the brain and potentially, the dumbest.
Why? Because the amygdala can very easily misinterpret threat. The amygdala can very easily misinterpret danger and because it does its job so well and because its role is to keep us safe, the amygdala thinks, ‘It’s better to warn them of this potential threat than to ignore it and risk their safety’.
The problem is this – threat is subjective in the 21st Century (quote from @anxietyjosh).
You may have noticed that there are no longer life or death dangers lurking around every corner. There are no predators to fear. For first world countries at least, most of us do not have to worry about warmth or where our next meal is coming from.
Yes, we experience stresses but real ‘you could potentially die now if you do not run’ dangers are simply not here the way they once were.
This is why we need our logical brain (or cognitive brain). The logical part of our brain intercepts these instinctual gut feelings from the amygdala, cleverly analyzes the situation and says, ‘Hold up! Don’t worry. I see how you might have thought that this was a sign of danger but actually, it’s not and you’re ok’
But the power of the amygdala is strong.
As anyone who has experienced severe anxiety knows, the feelings are overwhelming and can feel impossible to rationalise. This is why understanding the role of the amygdala in your anxiety and as part of the threat response is so important.
Because it often misinterprets threat and in order to overcome our anxiety we need to turn the amygdala off in times when we are in fact safe.
We must rewire the brain to know the difference between a real threat and a perceived threat. Between life and death danger and feelings of discomfort.
Understanding That Your Anxiety is a Threat Response
This might be a good time to check in because I’ve got a lot more information for you and I don’t want to lose you with the scientific jargon!
A quick round-up…
Anxiety is a much-needed threat response.
The threat response keeps us safe in times of danger.
This threat response keeps us alert to any potential threats.
But, the threat response can easily misinterpret danger and threat which is why we can be left feeling constantly anxious and constantly on edge.
Adrenaline is the hormone we engage when we need to quickly respond to the threat response!
Cortisol is the hormone we engage so we can quickly engage with adrenaline when we need to (as adrenaline is limited) but it leaves us feeling nervous and constantly on edge.
The amygdala is the home of the threat response and part of our lizard brain.
It can be easily triggered and does not rationalise these thoughts and feelings (this is the role of the cognitive brain)
The amygdala feels what it feels and responds in a way that it believes is keeping us safe.
Recovery lies in rewiring this threat response and turning the amygdala OFF when we don’t need it.
Alright, that’s the science behind it. You can allow yourself to be comforted by this because, in reality, your brain is simply doing its job. It’s functioning exactly as it should do. So, as I said, you are normal.
What you need to take away from this is that the lizard brain can become easily confused. It doesn’t rationalise, it only responds. So we need to train it to NOT RESPOND in times where we know we don’t really need it.
Understanding Your Anxiety in the 21st Century
The reason I like the quote from @anxietyjosh so much is that I had never before heard it phrased in this way.
Constantly I would have conversations with my partner where I would try to explain, ‘It feels stupid to be so anxious about something that I know isn’t of any real danger to me. I know I’m not going to die, I know it’s not the end of the world and yet I have all of these anxious feelings that just make me feel awful!’
Our threat response is almost redundant.
If we think about the reasons why we needed it, for genuine survival, there is now very little use for it in today’s society.
Today, stress is caused by the desire to live a good life and the struggles that go along with that. We fear what people think, we worry about the state of our finances, we distress over our appearance…
These are all real stressors but in no way are they reasons for us to feel as though we are in real danger.
But as we now know, the amygdala is constantly looking for ways in which it can save our lives.
It feels the flutter of our hearts as we consider the room full of people we’re about to walk into and it tells us, ‘Something about this doesn’t feel right, ABORT!’
It feels the pang of worry as we serve chicken to our loved ones and suddenly it’s screaming, ‘Oh no, something feels wrong… Did you cook the chicken properly? What if it poisons you and everyone you love?! STOP COOKING CHICKEN!’
It can take the discomfort of being stuffed on a London bus and misinterpret that discomfort for fear. Fear of entrapment. Fear of not being able to escape and fear being stuck in this confined space forever. Therefore, SMALL SPACES ARE BAD.
We have got a part of our brain that is designed to keep us safe from threats and it will look for these threats and dangers in the smallest of reactions.
When we suffer from anxiety disorder we aren’t able to engage the cognitive brain and tell ourselves that this perceived threat is not going to harm us and that we are safe. Our amygdala is firing off the threat response and when we aren’t able to turn it off we find ourselves in an anxious loop that can feel difficult to free ourselves from.
This leads us neatly onto…
Understanding Why Your Anxiety Persists?
This ties in neatly with how to overcome our anxiety and what anxiety recovery looks like which is discussed further down in this post.
But it’s worth mentioning here because it’s one half of the equation.
Understanding why anxiety persists means understanding how to recover from it.
Anxiety persists because we RESPOND to the threat response. Now, it will feel completely counterintuitive to have these thoughts and feelings triggered by your anxiety and to not do anything about it. Because that is what it’s there for, to get you to move! To keep you in a state of hyperalert ready to run when the time comes.
Every ounce of your being instinctually wants to react to this threat response.
Imagine, it’s like a friend warning you, ‘Don’t stand still. If you stand still the floor around you is going to melt away and you’re going to fall into a pool of boiling hot magma. But, as you’re falling, you’re going to get hit by lightning a few times and bounce off a few cacti on the way down. So, whatever you do, don’t stand still’
You’re going to feel the URGE (important word here) to MOVE. Because you’ve been warned.
And this is the same with your anxiety. You feel this nervous energy, the amygdala and threat response if firing off and telling you that something doesn’t feel right and to abort the mission… You’re going to want to respond and that’s natural.
But it is because we respond in times when we are not in any immediate danger that the anxiety persists.
For example, I used to suffer from severe social anxiety.
I would cancel parties, dinners, gigs, dates, meetings… you name it.
But each and every time I would attempt to leave to go to a party, triggered my threat response because I felt nervous or scared and then decided not to go I was telling my amygdala one thing…
Thank you for keeping me safe. Make sure you do that again next time. Going to parties is dangerous.
I responded to the threat response in a way that thanked it for its assistance when its assistance wasn’t needed and very much misplaced.
This is why anxiety disorder persists and rewiring our response is how we begin to turn the threat response off and begin recovering from our anxiety.
When we avoid the ‘danger’ we thank the amygdala instead of turning it off. This is why avoidance is the number one reason that anxiety persists.
Understanding the Different Types of Anxiety Disorders
It wouldn’t be a very good ‘anxiety’ article if we didn’t touch on the different types of anxiety now, would it?
There is a huge range of different anxiety disorders. A lot of them overlap and make for a little cocktail of anxious energy. Some are incredibly isolated and some are more common than others.
Below are a few of the most common types of anxiety disorders.
You may have experienced a handful and that’s OK. Anxiety is the same at its very core and overcoming it will involve using the same tools and techniques no matter which type of anxiety disorder you experience.
General anxiety disorder. GAD is often experienced when a person feels anxious about a wide variety of different stimuli. People living with GAD often live with a day to day feeling of unease and uncertainty. Feeling constantly on edge, GAD can feel incredibly debilitating and can be triggered by any number of things.
2. Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is the feeling of discomfort, worry or panic in social situations. Interacting with people, both in small or large numbers feels anxiety-inducing and can bring about feelings of panic in people with social anxiety. When we feel socially anxious we might find ourselves fearing judgement, criticism or rejection from others. This can tie into insecurities surrounding our aesthetic appearance or personality. Attending social situations can fill someone with social anxiety with dread and they can often find reasons to conceal or leave events early.
Claustrophobia is defined as a fear of small or enclosed spaces. Travelling on public transport, going to the theatre, travelling in a full car of people, taking an aeroplane, standing in a long queue are all examples where claustrophobia may crop up. With claustrophobia, the fear often derives from a fear of entrapment.
Agoraphobia is known as the fear of the outdoors or the fear of large open spaces. But it is also more complex than this. Agoraphobia is also defined by the fear of being somewhere where no help would be available in cases of emergency. This is why people with agoraphobia stay in their house where they know they are safe. They might worry about being out in public and having a panic attack or anxious episode and not being able to have the help they need. They might avoid public spaces, public transport and venture too far from home because of this.
OCD A.K.A obsessive-compulsive disorder is an incredibly common form of anxiety. With OCD a person feels compelled to carry out a ritual of safety behaviours with the fear that if they do not then something bad will happen. This can include anything from obsessive washing of hands, checking, locking, hiding sharp objects, mental checking and more. For people with OCD, the fear lies in the potential consequence of what might happen if they do not perform this ritual even though there may be no real rationalisation to prove that one is connected to the other.
6. Specific Phobia
Is anyone afraid of spiders? What about balloons, buttons, snakes, chocolate icing, plastic bags…? Specific phobia relates to anxieties surrounding a fear of something specific. Unlike many people who have some form of phobia (fear of dogs over here!) It often is not to such a great extent that inhibits their day to day life. But people with a severe and specific phobia can be crippled by this specific fear.
7. Panic Disorder
Panic disorder is the term used for anxiety sufferers who panic about panicking and panic attacks are defined as a sudden intense feeling of panic or fear that can feel overwhelming. They can seemingly appear as if out of the blue. Someone with panic disorder will live in a state of unease living in fear of having a panic attack.
Common Symptoms of Anxiety
Symptoms of anxiety can commonly be broken down into three distinguishable categories. Thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations.
Indeed, anxiety has a great effect on the mind, body and soul.
If you experience any of the following then remember, these are symptoms of your anxiety. Symptoms of your brain’s threat response trying to keep you safe (even when it is unnecessary to do so).
Negative thoughts arise when we’re battling with anxiety. We might ask ourselves, ‘What if I have a panic attack? What if I go to the party and I humiliate myself? What if I leave my house and something bad happens?’ When we’re battling with anxious thoughts we tend to ask ourselves the dreaded ‘what if?’ Constantly concerned with all of the things that could go wrong, harm us, embarrass us etc…
The feelings that we might feel during the midst of an anxious episode might include the feeling of uncertainty, discomfort, fear, worry, panic, disgust, terror, dread. When we’re overwhelmed with feelings of anxiety we live in the state of feeling on edge… like something doesn’t feel quite right… that something feels amiss.
Physical sensations (something I have experienced far too often for my liking) of anxiety might include extreme nausea, dizziness, brain fog, muscle ache, shortness of breath, increased heart rate, sweating, and stomach cramps.
These are all extremely normal responses to heightened anxiety but when we’re already feeling worried and panic they only add to the chaos.
The trick is in knowing that they are a symptom of an overreactive threat response.
You are safe.
Overcoming Your Anxiety
A lot of people who suffer from anxiety disorder might want to know how to ‘stop’ their anxiety. Or how to live an ‘anxiety-free’ life. Or, how to ‘beat’ anxiety.
And believe me, I understand this insane desire to be rid of anxiety once and for all.
The problem is this, as we’ve discussed anxiety is in fact necessary. It is a response that takes place in our lizard brain that is designed to keep us safe from harm.
I know what you’re thinking, ‘But you already said that it isn’t really needed anymore?’
You’re right, I did say that. The extent to which we used to rely on this threat response is not the same as it used to be. But we do still need it. Imagine those times when you’re walking home from the pub late at night and as you turn the corner to walk through the park you hesitate and decide to take the well-lit high street instead. That’s the threat response.
Imagine you’re walking to a friend’s house and you see a hooded stranger coming toward you so you decide to cross the street, just in case. That’s the threat response.
Consider a time when you’ve stepped out into the road only to immediately pull yourself back as a car zooms toward you. That’s the threat response.
When the fire alarm goes off at work and you get up and leave just in case there is a fire, that’s the threat response.
We do still need anxiety. We need this function to keep us alert because there are still real dangers in the world they are just few and far between in comparison to way back when.
So, we don’t want to permanently turn off our anxiety (turn off the amygdala) but we want to rewire it.
How Do We Turn Off The Amygdala?
This may well feel counterintuitive but here we go…
We want to turn off the amygdala in times where we know it isn’t needed. But the only way to rewire this threat response is to turn it off ONCE IT HAS BEEN ACTIVATED.
Let me explain. If I have social anxiety (which I did) and my threat response is triggered whenever I find myself in a social situation then my amygdala associates social gatherings as a threat.
What I want to do is tell the amygdala, ‘Social gatherings are not a threat and I am fine’
But the only way to do this is to trigger my anxiety in response to going to that party or attending that meeting SO THAT I can tell it that it isn’t needed.
Because think about it…
If I avoid going to that party or meeting then I relieve myself of my anxiety and the threat response turns off as I breathe a sigh of relief after cancelling the last minute.
But this doesn’t teach the amygdala that social situations are safe.
The only way to do this is to trigger the anxiety by going to the party or meeting, feeling the discomfort and the sensations associated with it so that we can tell the amygdala – while it’s firing off and going mental at us – that we’re perfectly safe. You are not needed right now.
And the more we do this the more it begins to realize that actually, ‘This situation is similar to last few times that you went to a party. And you told me that it wasn’t dangerous. You went to the party and nothing bad happened therefore, I won’t trigger the threat response because I know that you are safe in this familiar situation’
To turn off the amygdala we must first turn it on so that we can tell it that it isn’t needed.
If we avoid these feelings of intense anxiety then we do not have the opportunity to do this and we do not have the opportunity to recover.
Understanding What Anxiety Recovery Looks Like
With that said, anxiety recovery lies in the ability to willfully tolerate the discomfort of anxiety.
Instead of ‘getting rid of it’ completely or ‘stopping’ the anxiety which we NEED in order to keep ourselves safe in life, instead, we want to turn off the threat response during times where we know it isn’t really needed.
We want to tell the amygdala, ‘Hey, thanks for warning me that there might be potential danger here but actually, this is not a dangerous situation and I don’t need you right now’
Only when we can sit with the anxious thoughts, anxious feelings and anxious sensations without responding to them, can we consider ourselves in anxiety recovery mode.
There are a few different techniques that we can use to help us with this.
Now, before we take a look at them, there are two very important things to consider…
ONE – We must practise the following with willful tolerance. What this means is being willing to feel the discomfort of our anxiety with the understanding that we need to do so in order to get better.
Bulldozing our way into situations that conjure these anxious responses without really wanting to do so will not help. If you are constantly checking, seeking reassurance, fixating etc, then you are simply putting yourself in an anxiety-inducing situation without gaining anything from it.
You must practise with willful tolerance. Put yourself in these uncomfortable scenarios with the knowledge that you are doing so because you want to get better. (This will be explained further soon enough)
TWO – Anxiety recovery and anxiety relief are two very different things.
There is a great deal of anxiety relief tools that make anxiety recovery more bearable and can be of great use when we’re in panic mode and just cannot use any form of rationalisation to bring us back to balance.
But anxiety relief is just that – temporary relief. Anxiety relief does not mean recovery but simply an aid to get you through day to day life if you’re really struggling.
By all means, use whatever forms of anxiety relief are helpful to you but do not confuse it with anxiety recovery. Remember, to recover from anxiety means to turn off the threat response when it isn’t needed and the only way to do this is to rewire it when it is ON.
So we must be able to sit with the discomfort of anxiety and sometimes that means not reaching for the closest form of anxiety relief.
1. Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy is exactly what it says on the tin – exposing ourselves to stimuli that trigger our anxiety so that we can gradually begin to turn the threat response off.
Now the trick to exposure therapy is the willful tolerance that we spoke of previously.
There is absolutely no point in exposing ourselves to the discomfort of claustrophobia by hopping aboard a crammed public bus if we’re just going to crumble into a corner and count down the seconds until we can get off.
With exposure therapy, we can approach it in one of two ways – gradual or flooding.
Gradual exposure means taking small steps to expose ourselves to the suggested stimuli. For example, if we struggle with agoraphobia then the first small step might simply to walk to the front door and open it. Next might be to stand outside, the next may be to walk to the other side of the road and so on.
It’s ok if we find that we take the occasional step backwards and have to re-do a step. Relapse is normal and should absolutely be expected.
But gradually over time, we are taking these small steps to rewire the brain and telling the threat response that it isn’t needed.
Flooding is a lesser-used approach saved for a specific kind of person.
With flooding, we remover the baby steps and dive straight in. In this sense, the person with agoraphobia might head straight to their nearest shopping mall without working their way up to it. For some people, this works. For most, the gradual approach is far more comfortable and easier to deal with.
2. Cognitive Restructuring
Cognitive restructuring is at the heart of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and includes a range of tools and techniques for us to manage what is effectively our negative self-talk.
I don’t need to explain to an anxiety disorder sufferer the difficulty of coping with negative self-talk. This way of speaking to ourselves (these cognitive distortions) only live to feed our fears and make it harder for us to take action and push back.
As we spoke about previously, the symptoms of anxiety include negative thoughts and so cognitive restructuring gives us a way of dealing with them in a way that is healthy.
With cognitive restructuring what we are looking to do is challenge these negative thoughts and shift our perspective.
It sounds like a cliche but the ability to speak to ourselves kindly is a true skill that not many possess! We can easily get caught in a negative loop of self-deprecation and self-blame, especially when we are in anxious mode.
So for example, I might be heading towards a work lunch meeting and thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to make a fool of myself. Everyone is going to laugh at my presentation and it’s going to be a complete failure because I am a complete failure’
But instead, we want to challenge these thoughts and say, ‘I have no evidence that this is going to go wrong so I will just do my best. If it doesn’t go so well, I will take it as an opportunity to ask for feedback and do better next time.’
This isn’t easy!
But it is critical in helping your recovery because if we can’t get a handle on our negative self-talk then we will struggle to change the narrative associated with our fears and anxiety.
Mindfulness may dabble among the anxiety relief and anxiety recovery umbrella.
It is undoubtful that mindfulness has taken the world by storm and there is a reason for this. Whilst it may not work wonders by itself, when coupled with the other techniques above, mindfulness can go a long way in assisting your recovery.
Think about how many racing anxious thoughts can run through your head in one day, the overthinking, the catastrophizing and the worrying that one person can experience in a short 12 hour period.
Think about how many nights you’ve spent awake because you cannot switch off.
Mindfulness is the practice of calming the mind and bringing peace and equilibrium back to both the mind and body.
With a focus on the breath, it’s simply about allowing the thoughts to come and go like a cloud in the sky. Without questioning them and without fixating on them. You allow them to move through your mind without fear.
And this is vital in giving ourselves some much-needed relief and DISTANCE from our racing thoughts. Our mind needs a break!
The more we can do this the greater we can raise our self-awareness of how we are feeling and what we are thinking. It can provide great clarity and allow us some much needed moments of peace.
Short Term vs. Long Term Relief
Alright, now we’re getting into it. It’s time to dive a little bit further into understanding your anxiety and what it takes to switch that threat response off.
We’ve spoken about willful tolerance and exposure therapy and the two work hand in hand. These are perhaps the most effective ways of finding long term relief from stress and anxiety. Because that’s what we want, right?
We want to be able to live a good life, a healthy life.
But when anxiety can feel so debilitating is can be easy to reach for short term relief.
Here’s the problem, short term relief is preventing long term recovery. And we can understand this further by talking about fear learning and safety learning. Ultimately both types of learning are really talking about ways in which we talk to our amygdala.
Are we telling it that we are safe and can turn itself off?
Or are we thanking it for ‘keeping us safe’ and allowing us to AVOID an uncomfortable situation?
Fear Learning Increases Your Anxiety
People with anxiety disorder often engage in something that is called fear learning. This means that when we are overly sensitive to threat or danger, we respond in a way that thanks the amygdala for its assistance.
As mentioned before the amygdala isn’t so clever. It can’t always distinguish between real danger and perceived danger.
It is constantly on the lookout, observing everything around us ready to light up and kick-off at the sight of any potential threat to our safety. And it has to do this because the consequence of not could be catastrophic if it makes a mistake.
It’s better to be safe than sorry, right?
Well, yeah! And for that, we can truly thank it.
But when it becomes confused as it so often does, an overly anxious or overly sensitive person with listen to and feel all of the symptoms of this threat response firing off and habitually respond to it.
Every impulse in my body is telling me to run in the opposite direction. Surely I should trust my gut instinct? Well, not always.
In times where the amygdala has misfired and been triggered by a perceived threat – not an actual threat – when we listen to it and respond in a way that confirms its suspicions, we are practising fear learning.
We are teaching the amygdala that it was correct to sound the alarm and to make sure it does it again in the same scenario next time.
Ultimately, our anxiety is in the hands of our amygdala. It doesn’t always matter what we believe it only matters what the amygdala believes. If it’s going to see something as something that can cause us harm then it’s going to try and save us.
But the second part of that is that we can train it to understand what is and is not a threat to us.
As soon as we respond in a way that confirms the suspicions of the amygdala that we are in danger we effectively thank it for doing its job and ask it to do it again next time. This is fear learning. We are teaching it to be wary of the things that actually we don’t want to be fearful of any longer.
Fear learning is of course necessary. It’s good to tell our amygdala to run away from a person holding a gun or to steer clear of the drunk at the bar. But it’s not helpful when all we want to do is have a cosy drink with our friends or take a walk into town without feeling afraid.
This is all rooted in avoidance.
When we avoid anything we tell the amygdala that the reason may well be because it isn’t safe. If you think about flying and how many people are scared to board a plane. Rationally, we have all of the evidence in the world to suggest that flying is actually safer than driving.
But perhaps we have some nerves in our stomach when we think about being up there in the sky. Then we start ruminating on all of the possibilities about the plane losing an engine or a wing, or having to crash land in the ocean.
We think about being so high up with so far to fall should something fail.
And, because of this feeling of dread, you might decide not to hop on board. This is fear learning. Because we know very well that flying is an incredibly safe way to travel. But when we avoid getting on the plane following all of these thoughts and feelings we tell the amygdala that flying isn’t safe. You were correct to worry. Please make sure you trigger the threat response any time I even consider getting on a plane.
Avoidance encourages fear learning. And if you’re fear learning then you cannot recover from anxiety.
Luckily, just as we can teach the amygdala to be fearful we can also teach it that we are safe…
Safety Learning To Decrease Your Anxiety
You might have guessed by now how safety learning works.
If fear learning is how we keep the amygdala on and the threat response active then safety learning does the opposite. And this is what we want.
Safety learning is harder, more uncomfortable, and more distressing in the short term which is why most people fall into the trap of fear learning. The reason most people struggle to overcome their anxiety is that it requires short-term discomfort and short-term stress to recover from it in the long run.
If avoidance behaviour encourages fear learning then it only makes sense that approach behaviour encourages safety learning.
And this means practising exposure therapy through the art of wilful tolerance.
We must teach the amygdala that we are safe in situations where its assumption is that we are not. It’s firing off trying to protect us from a potential threat and it’s great that it does its job oh so well. However, the only way to tell it that it is in fact wrong in this instance is to feel the anxiety, feel the thoughts and sensations, and carry on anyway.
So for example, if we go back to a fear of flying then the best thing this person could do is to go and board the plane.
And with every bump in turbulence or flicker of the lights, they might feel a flush of panic but by stepping aboard and by sitting with uncertainty they can quickly look around and see that the plane is still sky high and nothing bad has happened.
We must do the things that scare us to show the amygdala that it is safe to do so.
This is safety learning.
What Are You Teaching Your Amygdala
I want you to think about how anxiety affects you for a moment. Whether you suffer from social anxiety, GAD, or claustrophobia… it doesn’t really matter. I want you to think about what conjures up those feelings and sensations of dread.
Now, after what we’ve just discussed about fear learning and safety learning I want you to think about what you are teaching your amygdala.
When you avoid the things that induce fear and worry into your life so you can find some much needed temporary relief, what are you actually telling the amygdala?
Think about some of the following.
What are you teaching your amygdala when you…
- Cancel every social engagement with your friends last minute?
- Ask your neighbour to get your newspaper so you don’t have to walk to the end of your driveway
- Walk ten miles to work instead of jumping on a bus that drives straight past your house.
- Google everything to do with that slight ache in your elbow, trying to find an answer
- Avoid large crowds at all costs
- Take a swig of whiskey before boarding every plane flight
Safety learning can be found in changing even the smallest of actions. So I encourage you to think about how your avoidance behaviour is encouraging your amygdala to induce anxiety in situations where it isn’t warranted.
Remember, anxiety recovery is found in the ability to willfully tolerate these anxious situations so that we can eventually turn the threat response off.
We cannot achieve this if we avoid these anxious situations in the first place.
Understanding Your Anxiety – Let Recovery Begin
The best decision you could make in starting your recovery journey right now is to swap temporary relief for temporary discomfort.
And this is because temporary relief is effectively avoidance behaviour and as we now know, avoidance is what encourages fear learning.
It wasn’t until I was willing to put myself in situations that felt so alien and uncomfortable to me that I was able to start my recovery journey. But this is the hardest part.
Overcoming anxiety is hard. It’s tough.
People who do not suffer from an anxiety disorder will never know the mental strength required to do even the simplest of tasks each and every day. So know that you are not weak, quite the opposite is true. You are stronger than most.
If you’re reading this article then I am sure that you are at a point where you don’t want to feel as though you are at the mercy of your anxiety any more. Perhaps life has felt like a struggle. Maybe your day to day existence is simply to survive.
The hardest part of all of this is being told that to get started you must be ready to willfully put yourself in the uncomfortable situations that bring about this fear in you.
The reason we reach for anxiety relief is that we want to be free of these anxious feelings. But this doesn’t last.
The only way is to retrain the amygdala. To tell it that we do not need it and that it can switch itself off. And the only way to do this is when it’s activated in the first place.
No more avoidance. No more temporary relief.
It starts now.