The anxiety response
Have trouble sleeping because of worry? Repeated need to use the bathroom before a presentation at work? Avoid going to social events because of fear? Feel panic for no real reason? Experience restlessness? Feel like more and more alcohol or other distractions from care? If you said “yes” to these questions, you just might be ‘doing’ an anxiety response, and it might make sense to read on.
Fear is rich in alternatives and anxiety responses can build slowly. You might not even realise there is a problem. Anxiety can affect our body’s systems stimulating inclinations to vomit, urinate, dehydrate, defecate, perspire and so on. But what exactly is this thing with the label; “anxiety”? Is it a “thing” at all?
Common definitions of anxiety
One definition reads like this:
“Anxiety is a persistent feeling of heightened fear” (1). Another definition reads like this: “Anxiety is a multisystem response to a perceived threat or danger. It reflects a combination of biochemical changes in the body, the patient’s personal history and memory, and the social situation.” (2).
I believe an important feature here relates to time. Fear, by definition, refers to the future. After all, we cannot fear the past. We might regret it but we cannot fear it.
Anxiety as activity.
In order to have an anxiety experience, a number of conditions must be met. Particular styles of thinking are associated with anxiety. Fear involves thinking about the future. That “future” may be imminent, near or distant, but it is regarded as holding challenges that are greater than our skills to address it. What’s important here is there is an imagined awful future event. Another way of saying this is; anxiety is usefully regarded as a hallucination or a couple of hallucinations. There are “positive” hallucinations, where we construct some awful future scenario and “negative” ones where we delete connection to our own personal resourcefulness, our power to address and manage whatever the future holds. We even delete our access to alternative possibilities.
Something we do
From this perspective, anxiety is an activity, something we do. The things we do usually begin with thoughts. These lead to emotions and feelings which in turn influence our actions. The thinking elements of an anxiety response can involve the construction of some visual scene where the outcome is clearly unwanted. for example:
- Between jobs, there are imagined scenes of a shopping trolley replacing the Chanel handbag.
- A child not home on time frames a scene of crisis in casualty at the local hospital.
- An upcoming workplace presentation is seen as playing out as an experience of ridicule.
- A raised eyebrow from a senior supports imagery of impending job loss.
Fear is truly rich in possibilities. As rich as our imagination. But, what if we you could prevent your anxiety responses? How good would that be? What would your life be like?
Defeating anxiety-based activities
A number of things can assist with correcting the distorted thinking that converts apprehension into expectation.
■. Replace hallucinations. It is not uncommon for an anxiety response to be stimulated by imagined scenarios. Focus on some awful scenario can prove very convincing. Changing the qualities of the “movies’ we run as we imagine awful future events unfold can prove useful in dismantling the unhelpful anxiety response. Replacing movies, or even still images, with more realistic alternatives can be very useful. Amy Humphries has a useful approach to manipulating the finer distinctions of personal experience including images (3).
■. Attend to the physical experience. It is useful to notice where in the body sensations are located, their intensity, attributes. When we make an assessment of the future that denies our resourcefulness, this stimulates an anxiety response. There will be some physical consequence. “Butterflies” in the stomach prior to a job interview are caused by an assessment of this future experience as more challenging than our personal capacity. Of course, if we are legitimately not up for the role being interviewed for, that’s another story!
Physical sensations can sometimes be manipulated. We might consider making our butterflies move in a different direction, moving them to some other bodily location. Their temperature adjusted perhaps. The more we try to manipulate physical experience, the more control we have over our experience (Steve Andreas provides a demonstration via the link below) (4).
■. Attend to assessment. Our internal dialogue, the way we make meaning in accord with our perceptions, can benefit from scrutiny and question. For every event there can be many meanings. Given that an anxiety response is about the future, something that has not happened, then something else might happen. Consider alternative possibilities (neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor has what I regard as a profound and amusing description of her own experience of stroke as well as the functioning of the hemispheres of the brain and internal dialogue) (5).
■. Remember resourcefulness. People who survive into adulthood have acquired certain skills. For example, they cultivate skills of negotiation with others. They cultivate talents, tastes, awareness of environmental and social dynamics. They also develop resilience. When “doing” anxiety we tend to forget our problem-solving skills, our power, and resourcefulness. Choosing to remain connected to personal power and problem-solving skills is a great tool to defeat our anxiety strategies. In fact it is usually not possible to run anxiety while remaining connected to personal power. Tony Robbins has an interesting talk on resourcefulness in a link below (probably best to overlook references to Lance Armstrong) (6).
This brief article is a simple encouragement to consider anxiety as an activity, a process. A process with its own structural elements. Elements that just might be amenable to change and ultimately defeat! Richard Bandler has written a book which devotes considerable attention to manipulating subjective experiences (7). Of course, many people are under the care of a physician, perhaps taking prescribed medications, and perhaps attending therapy. It is important not to change existing regimes without prior consultation with a physician.
- 3. https://youtu.be/skXGc2ENyqA
- Bandler, R.: ‘Get the Life You Want: The Secrets to Quick and Lasting Life-Change’. Harper Collins. 2009.