What is anxiety? Here are some causes and how to overcome them
“Careful, you’ll fall!”
“Don’t do that, you’ll hurt yourself!”
“Don’t touch that, it’s not yours!’
Do these words sound familiar to you? Were they what you frequently heard during your childhood? Are they words that you hear yourself saying constantly to your own child? If so, there’s a good chance that you and your child will be susceptible to suffering some form of anxiety.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling we all experience from time to time. It’s that fast breathing and rapidly beating heart, those sweaty hands and dry mouth, those butterflies in our stomach and our shaking hands. It’s our own body warning us of imminent danger. If we didn’t experience it sometimes, we would likely end up injured, or worse. It results from our beautifully evolved brain sending our body urgent alerts to be careful and take immediate action. When working well, we can owe our lives to it. Imagine, we’re looking at our phone and are about to step out in front of a speeding car, when we hear the blare of the horn. That shot of adrenalin from our adrenal glands may have just saved our life!
Anxiety is the response to real and imagined danger and stress. Living in situations that are continually dangerous or stressful will continue to produce these unpleasant responses and is bad for our health. Stress also causes the adrenal gland to release cortisol, which in the short term can help us recover, but if our anxiety and stress is ongoing, then the long term effects of cortisol can be extremely detrimental to our health. If this is the case, we might need to seek advice or help to remove ourselves from such situations.
Our brains may incorrectly perceive a situation as dangerous
Sometimes our brain goes ‘rogue’ and tells us we’re in real danger when we’re not. As humans evolved over the centuries, our lifestyle changed. We no longer have to chase off marauding mobs or escape from lions. This is good and bad. Most of our worries now are of a psychological nature. When we ran from lions, we used up all of that adrenalin and oxygen that our body produced to give us the energy to fight or escape. Now, we don’t need all of that to face our social and psychological worries. But our body doesn’t know the difference. It simply receives an alert from our brain regarding danger, and it rushes into action to protect us, giving us all of those chemicals.
These social and psychological situations might be fear of particular places or things, such as elevators or spiders, or it might be just general worry about lots of things, such as work or relationships. Sometimes we are fearful of being negatively judged by other people, or unpleasant memories can haunt us. These situations can all cause excess adrenalin and cortisol to flood our body, causing all of those unpleasant physical reactions that we don’t need or want. Our life is not in danger. We don’t need to run. Hopefully, we don’t need to physically fight, (although this might account for why some people do become physically aggressive when they are psychologically distressed, embarrassed or socially threatened). It’s this unused excess of adrenalin and cortisol coursing through our body that leaves us feeling dreadful.
Anxiety can be the result of frequent, unwanted and unneeded warnings sent to us when we think we need protecting. Children might complain of headaches, tummy aches or feeling sick. We might need to explain to them that these feelings are possibly caused by their unnecessary worries or fears, and support them by listening carefully to them and encouraging and helping them to face their fears, in small steps if necessary. Of course, any realistic fear, such as ongoing bullying, must be dealt with appropriately and may require adult intervention. The same goes for us.
What causes anxiety?
Both genetic and environmental factors can influence our anxiety. While we don’t ‘inherit’ anxiety, we might inherit the genetic make-up that makes us susceptible to anxiety. And, if the caregivers who raise us are themselves anxious, there’s a good chance that we might ourselves ‘learn’ from them to become anxious people.
How often do we see or hear one parent encouraging their child to take a risk and do something that the child might be resisting or finding challenging, only to hear a more protective parent rush to their child’s defense and intervene. The parent who is encouraging the child to take risks is encouraging the child’s mastery and self-reliance, and is most likely not an anxious person. (Of course, this assumes that the risk does not place the child in an unsafe position.)
The parent who rushes in to ‘save’ the child is no doubt acting on the dread that they themselves experience when confronting something potentially fearful. They see their intervention as loving and protective. This parent is most likely an anxious parent who does not realize that they are teaching their child to be anxious and fearful of the world. Sometimes this anxiety can manifest in social situations, with socially anxious parents being too quick to intervene. They might overreact or remove their child from a peer conflict, awkward interactions or inappropriate behaviour. It is often best to allow time to see if the children can resolve these issues for themselves. You can chat to them about it later, if necessary. Remember, they must be allowed to fail sometimes. That’s how we all learn.
How to deal with anxiety
Anxiety is a mental health condition that is very amenable to psychological intervention. We can learn mindfulness and practice controlled breathing techniques that reduce the production of excess adrenalin and cortisol. When we do this, our physical responses are brought under our control.
We can also train ourselves to determine real danger from imagined danger, which will help reduce the brain alerts. We can stop jumping at shadows. Is that person staring at me really thinking that I’m an awful person? Is that dog really going to attack my child? Play the clever detective. Look for the evidence.
If we come home from work feeling tightly wound up or stressed out, physical activity can help rid our body of this unneeded adrenalin. While it might not solve the problem at work, a run, swim or ball game will usually leave us feeling much better, and perhaps more able to deal with the issue. If leaving the house is not possible, a skipping rope and a goal to reach our daily number of jumps might work.
Sometimes we indulge ourselves in imaginary, but unpleasant talk. We wouldn’t consider repeat-playing our least favourite song, and similarly we shouldn’t repeat-play damaging and negative self-talk. Consider storing away some nice words that have been said to us, or have some pleasant memories on standby to replace the negative tune and pictures in our head.
Take care of yourself
I suggest surrounding ourselves with people who care about us, or at least support and value us. Positive, social contact is vital for our well-being. We could consider joining a club or organisation that interests us, or organise a coffee or dinner date with a friend. If we trust this person, and IF they are a good listener, we might like to chat to them about some of our worries.
Research shows that helping others by being kind and compassionate is also great for our own mental health. These behaviours not only help others, but also leave us feeling uplifted and worthwhile. Perhaps we could have a goal each day of saying or doing one nice thing for someone else.
We should also follow the old-fashioned, but never failing advice, of eating and sleeping well.
And, last of all, we should seek professional advice if we try these things and are still not feeling great.
There are many great resources available online to help you understand and manage anxiety, and where to get help. Here’s a link to BeyondBlue’s resources on anxiety.
You might also like to read Stephanie Lee’s 6 tips on managing anxiety during a pandemic. Stephanie is a marketing and communications manager who experiences anxiety and personally shares the ideas that have helped her cope.
Pauline Dorrell is a registered psychologist, specialising in helping children stay mentally well. She has five grownup kids, and thirteen grandchildren scattered around the world.