Worry is an emotion that all of us experience at one time or another. In small amounts it can be a useful indicator that there are things in our lives that we need to be aware of and concerned about.
How is Anxiety different from worrying?
Anxiety is a protective feeling which alerts us to danger and keeps us on the lookout. It is similar to worry, but where worries are linked to a particular issue, anxiety is a feeling which is ‘free-floating’ and is often present regardless of what dangers are actually present. Indeed, anxiety can sometimes cause us to find things to worry about rather than the other way round!
What does it feel like?
People feel anxiety in different ways, but common sensations include:
- increased heart-rate
- faster, shallow breathing
- tightness in the stomach, shoulders or neck
- a feeling that we need to do something
Anxiety has a number of effects aside from the physiological symptoms: it makes us less able to focus on the task in hand, which to others may appear as absent-mindedness, incompetence or laziness. It takes up our emotional energy with worry, leaving us less capacity to empathise with others or feel other emotions such as anger or sadness. And it increases the stress that our body experiences, leading to a variety of auto-immune illnesses.
Why do we have it?
In our evolutionary history, anxiety was a useful emotion that kept us watchful and vigilant in dangerous situations, and it is hard-wired into our emotional make-up to experience some anxiety. But why do some people experience more than others?
Some people are simply predisposed to be more anxious than others - there's no 'deeper' reason than the brain chemistry they were born with. Some will have learnt anxiety from a parent or family member when they were growing up, unconsciously adopting their behaviours and attitudes as 'normal'. Some will feel they have to be ‘the worrier’ in their relationships because the others involved are so laid-back.
For many people, anxiety comes about because they have been through a very difficult period of life and have learnt that there is plenty that they need to worry about, and that it is very sensible to be on the lookout for danger. For example, if they were abused or bullied when they were younger. For these people anxiety may have been useful in the past to keep them safe, but the anxiety can remain long after the danger has passed, in which case it becomes a habit to look out for danger and worry away at things, even when they’re not actually threats. At its worst this can lead to generalised anxiety disorder, where the worries interfere with daily life and significantly hold us back from doing what we want to do and from enjoying life.
One final perspective on anxiety is that it keeps us from experiencing deeper, more distressing emotions. This may seem counter-intuitive, as anxiety is pretty unpleasant in itself, but for many people anxiety becomes a habit to avoid something else. I know for myself that the anxiety I experience protects me from feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure. I hate being anxious, but it's safer than taking on the demons that lie beneath it. Like the rocking chair quote, even if though I don't like feeling anxious, it distracts me from other feelings I'd like even less!
Can anxiety be changed?
Yes. If you suffer from anxiety you will know that it is not easy to change - anxiety has a way of keeping itself going, so that the more we ignore it, or try to reason with it, or get angry with it, the more power it gains. There are a variety of ways to combat this, including:
- learning different habits and responses to anxiety so that the vicious cycle of worry does not continue, and so that you can take control of it
- understanding where the anxiety comes from and learning how to let go of the experiences that may have caused it
- finding out what deeper emotion anxiety may be protecting us from, and getting in touch with this emotion
- learning how to express and communicate your anxiety, rather than allowing it to fester.
A lot of this can be done alone, and there are some great resources out there to help you help yourself. However, another perspective on your anxiety has been shown to be more effective than self-help alone. If you're interested in exploring your anxiety and whether counselling might help you, get in touch or explore the rest of this site.
What about medication?
Medication can be effective in treating more severe forms of anxiety, and I would always suggest that people discuss their mental health with their GP. For some medication is enough to get them back on an even keel and allow them to move on with their lives. For many, though, the medication will not be enough, and taking the time out to discuss and understand themselves will work together with the medication to allow the individual to genuinely move on.
Can you be anxious and depressed at the same time?
Although anxiety and depression can seem like very different things, they often go together as a sort of bad-cop/bad-cop routine. Both anxiety and depression are responses to feeling out of control: anxiety tries to take back control by worrying and taking apart a problem, depressions tries to avoid the situation altogether by withdrawing. Many people experience a cycle of alternating anxiety and depression, which can be difficult to get a hold of, as many of the strategies they adopt to deal with anxiety may not be helpful for depression, and vice versa. For these people, understanding the underlying reasons for their anxiety and depression is often a more useful approach than learning strategies to avoid their symptoms.
How long will it take?
This depends on the reasons you feel anxious, and on how you want to take these on. If you chose to work just on techniques to break anxious thought patterns, without digging into the underlying cause, you could expect to see a change in 3-6 50 minute sessions. But if you wanted to take on the reasons you feel anxious in the first place this would likely be a longer process (12+ sessions). That said, there is no pre-designed program to follow, and everyone will be different. If you are interested in exploring this, why not get in touch by phone or email to discuss your issues and how I might be able to help you with them.