Anxiety gave your ancient ancestors a survival advantage. The ability to predict problems, and take steps to prevent them happening, is a product of evolution. It once made the difference between life and death.
When the stakes are this high, then these thoughts naturally have emotions attached to them. An anxiety disorder is where the emotional charge of these thoughts gets so great that it starts to distort your life. And, where even the thought of becoming anxious causes you to change your behaviour, then this is also a disorder.
A common and natural mistake some people make is in trying to get rid of their anxiety. Of course, there are many ways to reduce the severity and frequency of the anxiety response, but because anxiety is hard-wired in to our brains, it can’t be got rid of altogether. Plus, removing anxiety would be unwise. Imagine walking down a dark alleyway, at night, in an unfamiliar and rough neighbourhood. Your anxiety keeps you vigilant and aware of what’s going on around you, and your senses are heightened to pick up any potential dangers.
Trying to find a way to get rid of anxiety is a fruitless search and a waste of your time and effort.
The focus of effective treatments is the disorder part – unhooking from, or getting out of anxious thoughts when they occur; not allowing them to push you around; not being afraid of them. This is how you get your life back.
Anxiety disorders take many forms, for example social anxiety, panic attacks, or generalised anxiety disorder; phobias. Apart from issues resulting from brain damage, the brain processes are the same for all anxiety disorders; it’s just the context that is different.
Briefly, there are two brain regions involved with anxiety. First there is the Fight or Flight centre which is an ancient survival mechanism. This region can record past events that carry a large emotional charge and this charge can contaminate our lives in the present. If you feel this is part of what is going on, then the good news is that we now know how to take that emotional charge out of these events.
Secondly, your ‘thinking’ brain can be involved. This is when you start ‘catastrophising’, replaying stories over and over, imagining scenes of horror, or imagining what others are thinking of you. This part of the brain learns by repetition. The more you repeat a thought, the easier and more likely it becomes to have that same thought. By working with your thinking mind to unhook from these unhelpful thoughts, the connection weakens. But this is a skill that takes time to develop.
Thanks to dedicated effort by thousands of researchers over decades we now understand much better how to help someone with anxiety, by deliberately targeting each of the different brain regions with different approaches. This significantly increases the chances that someone can move beyond an anxiety disorder and return to living a normal life.
If anxiety is an issue for you or somebody you care about, then you may be interested in my free report showing how mindfulness can help with anxiety. Mindfulness is one of the tools available that can target one of the brain regions. All you need to do is sign up for the newsletter. As well as the report, you’ll regularly be sent lots of other useful articles showing you how to positively change your brain. Hopefully, you’ll become happier, too!