Anxiety: What it is and how to deal with it
Anxiety is one of the most basic of human emotions. It's not even exclusive to us human beings as anxiety reactions have been observed in every animal species.
It's true; even garden snails feel anxious. But what exactly is anxiety?
It is notoriously difficult to precisely (and succinctly) define every aspect of anxiety. Whether it is nerves before a job interview or work presentation, or the stomach-lurching feeling if you hear a suspicious noise in the middle of the night, everyone knows what it's like to feel anxious.
What is less known, however, is that the feeling can lead to physical sensations such as dizziness, blurred vision, numbness and tingling, sweating, and breathlessness. Many people don't understand what is happening when they experience the physical manifestations of anxiety, leading them to become even more anxious and essentially becoming stuck in a vicious circle of panic.
Fight or flight
Anxiety is a reaction to danger or threat. Sudden or short-lived anxiety is known as the 'fight or flight' reaction. So called because all the physical effects the feeling causes help us to either face the danger (fight) or run away from it (flight). Essentially, the main purpose of anxiety is to protect the body from harm. Although, anyone who has ever experienced a panic attack may find this 'protective' element more than a little ironic!
When we were living in caves and dressed like The Flintstones, it was vital that our automatic reflexes took over to allow our prehistoric ancestors to react immediately. That automatic response is still necessary today, even though we are no longer battling off dangerous predators. Imagine, for example, that a car suddenly comes speeding towards you, beeping its horn as you cross the road. If you didn't feel any anxiety, it would more than likely be game over for you. With your 'fight or flight' response in charge however, you would more than likely jump out of harm's way to a safer place. So, the moral of this worrisome tale is this: the primary function of anxiety is to protect you, not to attack you.
What to do
- Know that although, by its very nature, anxiety is a deeply unpleasant feeling, it is not dangerous. Nor are the physical sensations you may experience as a result. It is important to understand that although we cannot completely eradicate the feeling (and wouldn't want to as per the previous example!), it is certainly possible to diminish its grip.
- Adopt a healthy lifestyle and diet. Try to get a full night's sleep each night and avoid stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine, excessive sugar and cigarettes - all of which can make anxiety worse.
- Train your mind and body to relax. In addition to recognised relaxation techniques like yoga, mindfulness and meditation, relaxation can take other forms. A candlelit bubble bath, soft music, or a walk can all be effective ways to place your mind (and body) at ease.
- Recognise the type of anxiety or worries that affect you and talk to someone about it. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most effective treatments for anxiety disorders or generalised anxiety. CBT will help you to identify the symptoms more easily and detect and defeat your anxious thoughts.
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