By Lindsay Cote
Anxiety is simply another word for fear. We all experience anxiety. In moderation, anxiety is a helpful emotion: it drives us to take action to keep ourselves safe. Without anxiety, we would engage in risky behaviour with the potential to put us and our loved ones in harm’s way, either immediately (say, by excessive speeding in the car) or in the future (for example, by spending recklessly).
Evolutionarily, our body goes into “fight or flight” mode when confronted with a threat. It undergoes a series of physiological and cognitive changes in order to give a person the best possible chance of surviving danger. For example, our heart rate increases in order to pump blood to our muscles in order to prepare us to fight or run away; our thoughts often speed up; and our breathing rate may increase in order to provide our bodies with extra oxygen. In today’s world the dangers that we face are less likely to be life threatening (e.g., being admonished by your boss or being late for a meeting), but we continue to experience the same physiological response. This is the physical sensation of anxiety.
Anxiety becomes problematic or can even lead to an anxiety disorder - when it begins to have a significant, negative impact on our lives. This can be difficult to define, but a good indication that anxiety is excessive would be that a person is unable to do things that they need to do to function in their daily lives, or that they are spending a significant amount of time feeling distressed. People living anxiety may worry excessively about a particular topic or situation, or their anxiety may be experienced as pervasive worry about everything.
Why do people develop anxiety disorders? There are many reasons this can happen: a genetic vulnerability (coming from a family of anxious people); experiencing a traumatic event; ongoing, chronic stress; low self-esteem; or factors within the individual’s personality, such as a tendency to ruminate or overanalyse. While there are many pathways to anxiety, anxious people tend to share three ways of thinking: they overestimatethe likelihood that something terrible will happen; they overestimatehow catastrophic that thing would be if it did happen; and they underestimatetheir resources for coping with it.
People commonly cope with anxiety through avoidance. This works very well in the short-term, as avoiding a feared situation will take anxiety away very effectively. Unfortunately, it tends to make anxiety worse in the long-term, as the more you avoid situations that make you anxious, the fewer opportunities you will have to challenge the above ways of thinking. When people cannot simply avoid anxiety-provoking situations, they will often use what we term “safety behaviours” – ways of behaving that help a person will safer in a feared situation. For example, a person with a fear of public speaking may read directly from note cards in a soft voice without looking up at their audience. Over time, however, this behaviour prevents the anxious person from learning what they actually need to learn to get over their anxiety – that the situation actually isn’t dangerous in the first place. Instead, they believe that they only survived it because they used their safety behaviours.