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What causes anxiety? The science behind Anxiety.

Anxiety is complex. The word itself can mean so many different meanings for different people.

Sometimes the best step to working with anything like anxiety is to try and understand how it works. Once we understand how it works, we can look to work with it and then change it.

Many different aspects in our life cause anxiety, our biology, world view, coping mechanisms and stress all play a part.

Often though, anxiety is related to our response of future concerns. Thoughts of the unknown and the spiral of worry is usually one of the main common contributors. These are all those the “what if” questions: What if this happens? What if I don’t make it? Etc.…..

So why do our thoughts contribute to anxiety? To understand the process, let’s look to the science and biology side of what creates anxiety.

The science behind anxiety:

I promise to try my best to keep this brief and not information overload.

When staring out, it helps to look at the “why” behind anxiety and explain how normal anxiety actually is. That’s right.. normal, and I will look to explain how…

More than often when we feel anxious, when our body “thinks” we are in danger, or if we are stepping out of our “comfort zone”. Our comfort zone – is everything that feels familiar to us. You feel at ease and in control of their environment, experiencing low levels of anxiety and stress.

For example, sitting at home watching TV, having a conversation with a long-time friend/family member or anything else we don’t feel too uncomfortable doing.

However throughout life we are constantly facing our edge of the comfort zone– and to be fair this is where all the fun and good stuff happens.

Photo by Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

When we hit the edge of the comfort zone, our natural human being hard wiring kicks in. Our sympathetic nervous system triggers our fight, flight and freeze response (which you most likely have heard of before).

Your fight flight or freeze reaction is our natural survival mechanism kicking in. Think of it like your own personalised alarm system that goes off when you are a faced with danger.

The thing is – When we have these “What if” thoughts, your brain triggers and starts to think it’s in danger.

This alarm system kicks in and sends chemicals all through the body (cortisol & adrenaline). Your body goes into overdrive and gets you ready to either fight your way through the danger or to run away.

Flooded with anxious thoughts and these body sensations, it’s enough to make us feel like we have lost control.

You’re your body thinks “hey this isn’t comfortable – I must be in “Danger” I need to do something to get away or fight this danger off”. Then your natural defensive mechanism kicks in.

You notice that a lot of the physical symptoms of anxiety are linked closely to what our body’s natural reaction to danger – your heart races, your breathing gets shallow, get squirmy stomach and nervously fidget with your hand and legs.

These are all our natural primitive responses getting us ready to be safe.

Now this reaction was all very helpful for our cavemen ancestors who were constantly in danger from predators. Not so much these days when these “dangers” are not immediate physical dangers such as public speaking.

The thing is – Our brain can’t tell the difference between real and perceived danger.

This is your personal alarm system going off – but in reality it’s a false alarm.

Even though you might feel like it at the time – you are not going to die from public speaking.Thanks body but I don’t need to be in instinctive survival mode, I actually need to be calm, clear headed and focussed.

Don’t get me wrong, having this natural response is great and we all need it at some points in life. For example like crossing a busy road, where we didn’t take the time to look and having to move and act quickly to avoid a speeding car.

You want your body kicking into overdrive without us having to think about it. We want this reaction to be automatic and to be able to act and keep you safe. On the flip side however, when you are trying something different in your life, you get to the edge of the comfort zone and those same natural instincts kick in.

If it doesn’t feel normal and safe your body thinks I am in “danger” and all of those anxious feelings naturally start flooding in.

This is what I mean by Anxiety being a normal part of who we are. It’s hard wired into us.

Another way to look at it like this – Our brain isn’t designed to make us happy. This ancient, 200 million old organ is designed to seek out the worst case scenario in everything, what can hurt us, so we can either fight or flee our way out of danger.

These anxious feelings and reactions are our normal in built defence mechanisms designed to keep us safe. All of this is linked to Anxiety, and the same symptoms kick in when we are faced with the unknown.

Key points to take away:

  • Anxiety is a natural part of who we are.
  • If you are experiencing anxiety, there is nothing wrong with you – you are not broken.
  • Anxiety is linked to our fight and flight response – it’s our natural response to perceived danger.
  • Our thoughts can create the “danger” and fires of the false alarm.
  • These thoughts come from the unknown and what ifs?
  • Our body kicks into overdrive – which creates a lot of anxiety symptoms.

I hope this very brief background on what causes anxiety has been useful. What we will look into moving forward are tools that can help with working with and overcoming anxiety.

Thanks for letting us into your day – Christchurch Therapy Team!

Christchurch Therapy is a mental health service based in Christchurch New Zealand.

Specialising in, anxiety, depression and lifestyle changes.  

At Christchurch Therapy, the focus is on helping forward in your life.

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