What is the definition of anxiety - made simple!

Definition of Anxiety…

Anxiety is our modern-day response to fear.

Read that sentence twice because this is crucial in understanding how we can treat anxiety. Fear is our innate survival response. Fear teaches us to avoid dangerous and threatening situations.

When our species only had a primal brain, fear kept us alive. Our amygdala in our brain sensed an incoming threat and set off a chain reaction to our bodies to run, fight or shut down (think animals in the wild when faced with a threat!).

In the last few million years, our brain has developed a new layer called the pre-frontal cortex or the 'thinking' part of our brain.

Enter anxiety.

Anxiety is when we try to predict (or think about) any possible future threats. The pre-frontal cortex helps us to plan ahead but if we are struggling to predict what might happen we try to work out all possible scenarios.

Anxiety is signaling to us that our brain has predicted a threatening situation.

Threat can be external or an internal threat from overthinking, rumination and worry. When we feel fear, our primal or old part of our brain switches on the ‘fight, flight, freeze’ response, which set our hearts racing, blood rushing to our extremities and our rational thinking brain offline.

This was useful when we were cave dwellers having to run from predators but, in the age that we are living in now, it is not useful to be in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. Now, we have more modern-day threats such as worries about paying bills, work and social pressures as well as the larger concerns about the political climate and covid. Our modern-day threats allow us to ruminate and overthink all situations thereby creating anxiety.

How do you break this and cope better with anxiety?

There are many ways that we can deal with anxiety. And not forgetting that anxiety looks different for everyone. Aside from talking therapy/counselling, there are ways that we can begin to help ourselves.

Look at what you can control in your life

Make a list of things that you can take action with that have been worrying you. Writing down your worries and fears can be a great way of realizing that you might have been catastrophizing your concerns. Plus, taking action can help you to feel more in control. If you have too many things to do and are feeling overwhelmed, look at what can you delegate or do another day.

Try breathing exercises

Breathing exercises can help to calm us down when we begin to feel anxious. Breathing in for the count of four, holding for four and breathing out for eight can begin to calm down the body. As we count, we are focusing on the breath and the count which can help to get our thinking brains back online. This simple and effective process of ‘slowing’ things down, is being gentle on your nervous system, allowing room for better processing of thoughts.

Eat healthily

Healthy eating and cutting down on alcohol and caffeine can be steps towards lessening anxious feelings, as coffee and alcohol are stimulants and serve to increase anxiety. Eating food that can help us to regulate mood can all help. This includes eggs, brazil nuts, oily fish and yoghurt. These foods reduce inflammation in the body which can influence mood, stress and anxiety. Vitamin D and B complex also play an important role in this.

Keep a diary of thoughts and emotions

Doing this can help to work out which areas of our lives are causing the most worries and anxiety. Journaling can be cathartic too and can help to get our worries out onto paper, almost like getting the pieces of the puzzle out of their ‘box’, your brain, onto a larger surface so you can see things clearly.

Practice mindfulness

Being mindful simply means noticing the things around us from moment to moment to allow us to get back in touch with our senses. Being in each moment takes practice and starting with a few minutes a day can help to slow down the busy anxious thoughts. It makes sense to try to remain in the present moment since anxiety is all about worrying about the future. The easiest and most simple way to start is when you are enjoying your first beverage of the day…be with that beverage, hold the cup, glass, feel the temperature and take a moment to savour that first mouthful…and enjoy!

Try a grounding technique

This technique can be a follow on from a breathing exercise to bring you into the present awareness.

Sitting with feet on the ground notice how solid the ground feels. Close your eyes and feel the chair beneath you.

Relax your face, shoulders and neck.

Notice your hands on your knees.

  • How does the fabric feel against your hands?
  • What can you hear?
  • What can you taste?
  • Notice your breath. Is it long or shallow?
  • Do you feel it in your chest or nostrils? How does it feel?

…and the hidden message is….

You don’t have to control your thoughts,

you just have to stop letting them control you!

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