Understanding the experiences of anxiety
I’m almost certain that you, the reader, might be able to relate to this. An idea of something frightening pops into your mind and it just won’t leave! It might be a thought about something in the future, perhaps an upcoming situation that creates some discomfort and the mind thinks about all of the possible threats – thinking about the worst possible outcome and catastrophising, and running through all of the “what if…” possibilities. Or it could be a worrying thought that has noticed potential threats around you. It might be a thought about something that happened recently, and the mind starts to re-play all of the details; what was said, what was done, and what happened moment-by-moment. As these thoughts run through the mind, our emotions start to shift – we feel nervous, tense, on edge, agitated, fearful, and scared. At the same time, these thoughts and feelings impact on the body – we might notice butterflies in the tummy, we feel shaky, our heart-rate increases and our breathing becomes shallow, the fingers tingle, we might start to sweat, the muscles in the body tense up, and our attention gets pulled further and further into the frightening idea that came into the mind. Given the thoughts and feelings in the body and mind, our actions might change; we might have an urge to leave or escape the situation we are in, we might avoid certain people or situations all together, we spend more time worrying about our fears, and we worry that we will be unable to cope. The thoughts, feelings, sensations and behaviours that are happening can spiral and become consuming, intense and overwhelming. If this has happened to you, then it does not mean that you are “going crazy” or that there is “something wrong” with you – you have experienced the effects of anxiety in the body and mind.
It might not feel like it at the time but we know that anxiety can be a very helpful experience and it is a part of being human. Consider this situation: you are about to cross the road when a car pulls out in front of you quickly. In this situation, the anxiety response is helpful – we notice the potential danger (maybe thinking “I might get knocked over, I might get hurt”) and we respond quickly to do something that keeps ourselves safe (stepping back onto the pavement). Anxiety is not something that we ever aim to eliminate from our experience (even if we might want to “get rid of” anxiety, we need some in our lives!). The anxiety experiences are the body and mind responding to potential dangers in the environment and trying their best to keep you safe. Anxiety is an evolved function that is sometimes called our “fight, flight or freeze” response – the body’s alarm system to either attack, flee or shut down in the face of danger.
The tricky thing is that our body and mind alarm system is sometimes triggered in the absence of real life-threatening dangers. Our body and mind responds to imagined threats in the same way as it responds to actual threats. This means that the same physiological and psychological responses can happen when we think about something that has not yet occurred (a future fear), or if we think back over an experience (ruminating about what has happened in an anxiety-provoking situation). In these scenarios, the dangers exist only in the mind. Anxiety can then become problematic to us if the initial frightening idea leads to more and more threat-based thoughts, if the fears in the mind stop us from living our lives fully each day, if we anticipate being unable to cope, or if we worry about the experience of anxiety (for example thinking “I’m out of control” or “my heart was beating so fast, I thought I was going to die”).
If you recognise this vicious cycle of anxiety, then it is time to find ways to reduce the baseline level of anxiety. Yoga, mindfulness and meditation, and psychological therapy techniques are effective practices to help lower our baseline levels of anxiety. Equally, it is also helpful to consider other ways of responding to the experience of anxiety which helps to develop and strengthen healthy coping skills. There has been so much over recent years that has generated understandable fear and anxiety in us, and we continue to live in challenging times that can be frightening. It makes sense to be feeling anxious and worried right now. At the same time, it is important to continue living our lives to the fullest and find ways to soothe ourselves, experience joy and connection, and learn to relax.
The next blog by BAM Therapy will share one set of psychological therapy techniques that can help us better manage anxiety – watch this space and keep an eye on our social media pages!
BAM Therapy offers therapeutic yoga classes and yoga courses that integrate evidence-based psychological therapy practices to reduce anxiety, improve mood and help us better manage the challenges we face.
Thank you for reading! Please do share any feedback or comments below, or let us know any suggestions for future blog articles.
Gilbert, P. (2009). The Compassionate Mind. London: Robinson.
Khalsa, M. & Greiner-Ferris, J. (2019). Y-CBT: Yoga-Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – Group Leader’s Manual.
Meares, K. & Freeston, M. (2008). Overcoming Worry and Generalised Anxiety: a Self-help Guide to Using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy Techniques. London: Robinson.