What is Anxiety?

The first thing to ask ourselves is why do we feel this way? Why on earth should anybody be plagued with anxiety? After all, we clearly aren’t meant to feel that way, are we? Well, actually, yes we are! It’s a necessary response to threat and danger that’s been handed down via DNA from generation to generation from the days of our ancient ancestors! So you’re not weird and there is nothing wrong with you for suffering with anxiety.

Nowadays we don’t have the same levels of threat and danger to life that they had in those years gone by. But in the deepest part of our mind, the same survival instincts that kept those people alive still tick away, monitoring every split second of every day of our lives. The problem is, though, that that part of our mind is not too clever at recognising a real threat from something that is only perceived as a threat and so reacts with that ancient response of fear. And that’s exactly what anxiety actually is… ‘fear spread thinly’ as somebody once said.

So anxiety isn’t real …. Yes the symptoms feel very real, the sweating palms, the heart palpitations, the churning stomach ….oh the list goes on, but it’s only because your mind thinks you’re in real danger but of course the reality is you aren’t.

Of course, you are not even vaguely aware of all this activity going on in the subconscious because it’s completely invisible to your conscious mind and very powerful, which is why we can’t just decide to stop worrying and start enjoying life. If there’s ever a battle between what you consciously know or think, and what your imaginative subconscious is working with, then the subconscious will win every time. If it wants you to feel fear or anxiety, then you really will feel fear or anxiety!

Your mind is constantly on the look out for any threat to your survival and will look for the slightest thing that matches up with any past memory. As soon as it finds a match the same thoughts, and actions are produced as your mind believes the threat to be ‘real’ like it once was…..

Here’s an example of how each might work in the scenario where a guy called Mike has to take his driving test. He knows he’s dim and he’s sure he’s likely to fail and is dreading the ridicule that he believes he will endure afterwards. The subconscious creates fear to trigger him into avoiding the threat in some way and this might result in one of two different responses:

  • He wakes up on the day of the test with a migraine headache and is quite unable to drive because he can’t see properly.
  • He sprains his wrist on the day before the test but ‘bravely’ takes it anyway with his wrist heavily bandaged.

You can probably see what’s going on here; the first instance is an avoidance mechanism and the second is a coping strategy that gives him a mitigating circumstance if he fails. Either of those responses might be genuine or they might be conscious inventions. Either way, they are the result of the subconscious seeking to protect Mike from the perceived threat of ridicule.

Ridicule is hardly a life-threatening situation of course but the subconscious doesn’t care about that little nicety – it’s a threat because it might weaken Mike, leaving him vulnerable in some way, and therefore it must be avoided. What is far more important is why Mike would be so convinced about the prospect of ridicule if he failed that test and why so sure he would fail – after all, some very dim people drive cars!

So our job is to convince the mind that what we are facing is absolutely safe!