Anxiety in and of itself is not a bad thing. Someone has to worry about paying the bills, and someone has to have just enough fear to make sure the doors are locked and everyone is safe at night. There are reasons to be cautious and reasons to be careful. Anxiety, in fair amounts, helps us make good decisions and stay well.
If you’re facing a situation that calls for caution or restraint, don’t panic if a little anxiety makes you delay your response or seek more information before you commit. It’s natural to look up the side effects of a new medicine your doctor wants you to take, and it’s prudent to want to get to know your child’s friends and their parents before the kids have a sleepover.
People have always been anxious, and there are good reasons the emotion has stayed with us.
Our ancestors, living in tribes in the wilderness, faced all sorts of threats. A troubled person who would sit up all night and cry out at the sign of a predator was a valuable member of the group. A sensible touch of anxiety is one of the reasons why we’re still here.
Too much anxiety, however, can strike us frozen with fear, crippled by concern, unable to get through a day without becoming mentally or physically sick. While you may think that your anxiety is some exaggerated character flaw that tortures you worse than anyone else, rest assured that many people experience anxiety that disrupts their lives. And understand that, even though anxiety can lock you into fearful inaction, it comes from a perfectly natural place: Your nervous system.
When our ancestors encountered a threat, their nervous systems kicked into overdrive. The perception of the threat caused adrenaline to shoot through them. Blood rushed to large muscles and vital organs. The airways in their lungs opened up. Their senses heightened and became sharper. Nutrients filled the bloodstream and their bodies became pumped up with energy. This complex reaction, which we still experience, happens in an instant. In fact, it happens so fast that the body is in full defensive mode even before the brain completely recognizes the threat. That’s why you seemingly automatically steer away from a car that quickly enters your lane. You don’t even think about it. This life-preserving function of our bodies is called the fight or flight response.
As quick as the body is to jump to a ready defensive reaction, it calms down when the danger passes. The high state of alert dissipates as the threat is removed. This all served us very well when we lived in nature and the threats were big and scary and could eat us. Because of the fight or flight response we could escape a predator or kill it and eat it. When the threat was neutralized we could relax and, sometimes, feast. Everything returned to normal.
Our physiology remains intact, and we share the fight or flight response with our ancestors.
Only today the threats, the stress events, are much different. They may not be immediately life-threatening, but they don’t just go away, either. Worry about trouble at work, or an ill child, or a bill you just can’t pay doesn’t dissipate. There is no resting and feasting because these threats don’t quickly pass. They seem to drag on forever, and our bodies remain on high alert, constantly stressed. It makes us sick.
Uncertainty, boredom, the assault of assertive media and the constant contradictions of a terror filled world all trigger the fight or flight response. A quarantine in a collapsing economy threatened by an unfamiliar virus we’re only aware of when symptoms appear causes these negations to persist. We have no idea when it all will end. We’re on high alert in a desperate place where what inevitably happens seems completely out of our control. And to find yourself in a bad situation over which you have no control might be the most anxiety provoking threat of all. Despair makes us doubly anxious. The anxiety deepens the despair. The cycle swirls like a tornado that can pick up everything in its path, everything we thought was stable, and toss it around like matchsticks.
The catch is that while the fight or flight response and the anxiety it triggers is a physical experience, our minds often make it worse through worry, exaggeration and stories with outright falsehoods that we tell ourselves. The difference between anxiety that we quickly dispel and anxiety that just grinds on without end is a matter of where the threat we perceive is located. When something external that we don’t have time to think about causes the anxiety, like the car that swerves into our lane or the bear that threatens the camp goes away, so does the anxiety.
Things quickly return to normal. But when the anxiety becomes internalized, when negative thoughts clutch our minds, the fight or flight response takes hold and doesn’t let go. Our thoughts perpetuate our suffering. Things don’t get better until we go deep inside and deal with it.
The fight or flight response does not have to result in crippling anxiety. It is a part of being anxious, but it comes early and only sets the body up for the dis-ease of disruption. The mind has to take it from there. Stress that clouds our reason combines with our physiology to make life seem unbearable. As our mind convinces itself that things can’t be fixed, the physiological response remains. Then life actually does become unbearable. The mind’s certainty that all is wrong fuels the stress response in the body. The mind and the body, so well-tuned when they work together as one, seem to come apart and suddenly, through the constant replay of stressful thoughts, the mind is set against the body. Physical, and sometimes mental, illness follows.
The body easily falls ill as the assault of the mind drives a wedge between a person’s perception of reality and what is actually happening around them. We get to the point where we don’t trust our own thoughts. All the while the fight or flight response recycles without relief. The constant feeling on edge, the relentless rush of adrenaline, the disruption of sleep and normal functioning pulls the body and mind further apart.
The only way to overcome and correct this battle between the body and the mind is to rejoin the two. To make us comfortable in our body and confident in our thoughts. To reestablish the trust and harmony between the mental and the physical.
To eliminate a predator is easy. To get over fear, uncertainty and negativity takes a set of skills many of us don’t naturally possess. We have an incredible talent we can use to handle anxiety. We can learn.
This is an excerpt from my book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis.