Under the Spell of Anxiety

It is a rare thing for one to have never used the word anxiety, as it is used and misused as a ‘catch all’ phrase to describe a multitude of affects. Wikipedia captures quite succinctly the theme of anxiety in this statement ‘a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome’.

Wikipedia also continues to point to a cacophony of words that are often used in an attempt to describe it.

Worry, concern, apprehension, apprehensiveness, consternation, uneasiness, unease, fearfulness, fear, disquiet, disquietude, perturbation, fretfulness, agitation, angst, nervousness, nerves, edginess, tension, tenseness, stress, misgiving, trepidation, foreboding, suspense; informal / butterflies (in one's stomach), the willies, the heebie-jeebies, the jitters, the shakes, the jumps, the yips, collywobbles, jitteriness, jim-jams, twitchiness; informal / the (screaming) abdabs; rhyming slang / Joe Blakes; archaic / worriment

Whatever term or terms one may use in this endeavour, each one may often miss the mark of communicating effectively to another what is ‘actually’ taking place. Yet supporting oneself in understanding objectively the symptoms of anxiety, may well start with removing the word and the phrases that we use to describe it.

The power behind the word…

‘Worry’ although an aspect of an anxious state, is ‘not’ anxiety. Worry is a way in which we may describe a cognitive process, whereby we think in words/text, create visual stories and narratives and images within our minds. This is actually a natural and vital creative process. Yet, if I were to create negative thoughts, create fictional narratives in my mind, imagine difficult situations and imbue it with meaning, it would create a number of unique affects that appear also outside of my mind.

‘The willies, the heebie-jeebies, the jitters, the shakes, the jumps’ is ‘not’ anxiety. These words are another attempt at communicating whats happening, but really only points to the physical part of the experience.

The common ‘panic attack’ phrase points to the more extreme end of the way someone may physically be experiencing the difficult sensations, associated with what we call anxiety. I often ask someone who may be using this phrase, ‘who or what is attacking?’ (of course it may feel that way) but is an actual attack taking place, is it fact or is it fiction?

As you can see, there is an important dynamic taking place between what is happening in ones mind (image creating) and what is taking place in ones body (sensations/behaviours). It is often the ‘chicken or egg’ scenario in terms of which symptom arose first. However, it is vital to differentiate and recognise between the ‘cognitive process’ (worry etc) and the ‘physical experience’ (shakes etc) by understanding and taking charge of the all elements of what we term as anxiety.

One of the problems that can make our relationship with anxiety so unclear can be found in the word itself. The word ‘Anxiety’ is a noun, and in the classic definition (that most of us were taught in our early years), a noun is a person, place or a thing, and this is often the way the word anxiety is mostly used, in the context as ‘a thing’ in itself. Which it is not. 

Anxiety is not an actual thing in itself, in fact anxiety is not an object at all, it is subjective (interior) experience and also an objective (exterior) experience at the same time. 

Threat…Fictional or Factual? 

In fact one of the most useful ways of of understanding anxiety is to look objectively at the most evolved and sophisticated part of ourselves, the body/brain and the central nervous system.  

When one perceives threat, imagined fictional (cognitive process) or real factual (actual experience) a set of events starts to take place depending on the degree of threat. 

The autonomic nervous system (ANS -this system connects the brain and internal organs) starts a chain of events that mobilise and ready the body for movement and action, adrenaline is released into the blood stream and the heart beat quickens delivering blood to the muscle fibres in preparation to move in response to the threat. 

Depending on your personal default setting, the body/brain determines the safest outcome, which may be to ‘fight’ (move towards) the threat/difficulty/problem or ‘flight (move away from).

There is also a specific amount on adrenaline released, which in a functional system is in alignment to the given threat. However in modern society we are often under continuous minor threat/stress, so our adrenals are often working overtime and may be in a state of hyper-arousal or hyper-vigilance more readily and likely to be more dis-functional. 

Sometimes the amount of adrenaline we have in our bodies is more than the situation requires and with larger doses of adrenaline released from our ANS the cognition slows down (as blood flows away from the brain towards the muscles) as body is needed more than mind. Feelings of nausea and the need to defecate are there as a result of the body wanting to eliminate what is in the bowel, so one is not slowed down in movement, the dizziness that one often feels is the result of the heart pumping and blood flowing.

Incidentally there is a ‘freeze’ response which is an immobilised state which happens involuntarily as a last resort, to ‘play dead’ until the threat has passed. 

Repeatedly getting stuck in any of these states, fight, flight, freeze, leads to the experience of overwhelm and eventual compromise of the adrenal function which can lead to burnout, breakdown/exhaustion/ and depressive states. In fact the see saw/pendulum swing is what really leads to our bi-polarised states and experiences. After-all the ANS is a binary system at its foundation, Sympathetic - (fight and flight) - Parasympathetic - (rest and digest).

Anxiety or Adrenaline? 

The word anxiety may have been given far too much power and a spell cast that may have lost it’s meaning and created more confusion than originally intended. Our ANS is a result of 6 million years of evolution, language is around 50,000 years old. An understanding of the processes and pathways between these two is key.

If we can move away from our initial interpretations and understandings that ‘anxiety’ is a thing in itself, and start to understand the layers of sensations experienced, behaviours acknowledged, images created, meaning applied and affect felt, as well as how our bodies and brains relate/respond to threat, the power that anxiety may hold over us can become (quite literally) a ‘thing’ of the past.