We know that when we get anxious, the fight-or-flight response is triggered and our bodies experience many physiological changes and symptoms that we find stressful and unpleasant. But, do you know what causes us to get anxious? It may not be what you think.
No, it’s not that upcoming presentation at work or that plane flight next week. It’s not something external.
I’m a psychologist, so I’m going to try to help you discover the answer. Here’s an example. You and a friend are out on a morning walk and a neighborhood dog barks loudly. You love dogs and this makes you smile as you comment, “He’s up bright and early.” Your friend, on the other hand, is startled. Her heart begins to race and she finds herself a bit breathless, as she comments, “Oh my! Where is it? I don’t like dogs.” Same situation. Very different reactions. Okay, now do you have an idea of what causes anxiety?
Anxiety is caused by a cognitive process; it is the meaning we make of something.
The process goes like this:
The Cycle of Anxiety
- We are faced with an event or stressor (such as the dog barking).
- We respond to it, as with do with anything in our environment (as this is our self-protective nature) by thinking about it (consciously or unconsciously) and judging its potential for harm to us.
- If we do not consider it to be a possible threat, we continue to go about our day. All is well.
- If we consider it to be a possible threat, we respond to that judgment in four ways:
- Physiologically – with our body’s fight-or-flight response and all of its effects on the body.
- Emotionally – such as anxiety, fear, overwhelm, helplessness
- Behaviorally – such as running, crying, aggression, screaming
- Cognitively – more cognition – such as worry, rumination, attempts to problem-solve, attempts to cope, positive and/or negative self-talk
When we make a judgment of potential harm, we respond. By responding in maladaptive ways (cognitively, behaviorally, emotionally) that do not match the reality of the danger of the situation or in ways that are not helpful to solving the problem, we may unintentionally perpetuate the cycle of perceiving danger, physiological activation, and it’s physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive effects. And so the cycle of anxiety continues.
Our Bodies are not our Brains
Yes, the mind and body are interconnected and it is important to treat them as such to achieve and maintain whole wellness (and to learn to master problems with anxiety). However, in some ways we are very simple machines.
Let’s take the fight-or-flight response as an example. If we interpret a situation as potentially harmful, our bodies respond. What’s important here is that the body will respond whether there is a real threat, like a car nearly rear-ending us at a traffic light, or when we incorrectly perceive danger, such as when our friend hears the dog barking. It doesn’t need to be potential physical danger either; it could be potential harm to our feelings or our well-being. For example, we may respond this way if we are asked to speak in public and we fear embarrassment in this situation.
If the meaning we make of the situation is one of potential harm, our bodies will respond, whether the threat is real or one that just seems that way because it is intimidating or threatening to our “selves”.
Yes, it is the meaning we make of our perceptions. This being said, how we interpret stressors may be influenced by genetics, which can prime us for overactive or underactive stress responses. Life experiences, such as exposure to extremely stressful or traumatic events or learning patterns of overactive stress reactions through observations early in life, may also contribute to an increased vulnerability to stress reactions.
So, What Needs to Change?
Okay, I’ve lead you there. Let’s hear your thoughts on this.
I’ll discuss evidence-based therapy for anxiety in an upcoming post.
Lead photo available at 123rf