If one were to simplify what anxiety is, it would best be described as your fear response being overactive. For example, have you ever had a smoke alarm that sounded even when no smoke was around? That's what living with anxiety is like - your body and mind feel terrified, even though often there isn't anything happening to warrant that level of fear.
So, what can you do when you feel afraid all the time - physically, mentally, or both? We'll explore some solutions in this article.
Anxiety and Fear
It's not entirely clear why those with anxiety have a fear response that's malfunctioning. In general, it's believed to be a coping problem that is either learned (through life situations) or genetic (in your DNA), or both. There’s also an evolutionary reason for anxiety: it helps us to respond to and survive physical threats.
This fear response is what kept our early ancestors safe when they roamed amongst saber-toothed tigers and other predators. Today, we face different dangers, but our brains are still wired in much the same way. In other words, if you have anxiety, this is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it’s a sign that you’re fine-tuned to surviving danger in your environment - a trait that would have been vital further back in human history.
Symptoms of Fear Expressed Physically
Even though anxiety may involve a lot of "scary" thoughts, the basic signs of anxiety are often physical. Why? When you have anxiety, your body activates the fight-or-flight response, releasing adrenaline and causing a host of changes to your body that are all designed to keep you safe from harm.
Now, if you’re facing an actual predator, your anxiety may save your life. But the same fear response gets activated when you’re facing a threat that’s not actually going to cause you direct, physical harm. This might be a simple stressor like a looming deadline or conflict with a friend, for example.
Because these sorts of stressors don’t disappear overnight, you're likely to experience more and more physical anxiety symptoms without much relief. This is why anxiety can be described as an overactive fear response.
Mental Anxiety Symptoms
Interestingly, however, anxiety can cause fear in our minds and not just our bodies. Some believe that fearful thoughts represent your mind’s response to what’s happening in your body. Since your body is nervous, your mind feels nervous. At times, your mind overreacts to what’s happening in your body, interpreting these physical sensations as being far more distressing than they need to be.
While this all represents a slight oversimplification of what actually happens in terms of hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain, above we have described the basics of how fearful thoughts and bodily sensations interact in the case of anxiety.
How to Stop the Fear
Of course, knowing why you’re feeling something isn't necessarily helpful. Chances are you're hoping to figure out how to get rid of that feeling of fear so that you can live with less anxiety.
We spoke about exercise earlier: physical activity is step one in managing feelings of fear. There are countless scientific studies that link regular exercise to reductions in anxiety and research shows that this has a calming effect on the brain and body.
It should also be noted that even though anxiety has a strong physical component, as mentioned above, there is considerable evidence suggesting that you can learn cognitive coping skills which are effective for reducing anxiety and fear. The mind and body are closely connected; and by training your brain to respond in a particular way, you can get real relief from your anxiety.
What can you do to train your brain to limit your fear and anxiety? Here are some ideas:
- Mental Distractions We mentioned earlier that your mind can sabotage you when you have anxiety. By distracting yourself at appropriate times, you can encourage your mind to focus on things which are less likely to trigger your anxiety. So, when you feel the anxiety coming on and you feel like you need to calm yourself, make a conscious choice to distract yourself with, for example, fun activities, phoning a friend, pleasant music, an enjoyable television show or any other activity that you can use to temporarily shift your thoughts in a more positive direction.
- Walk Exercise is a valuable tool for coping with anxiety. Why? Even just a gentle stroll can help get your blood get flowing whilst also providing you with visual and mental stimulation. Also, walking can reduce some of the adrenaline in your bloodstream, which is important for keeping anxiety away.
- Write Out Your Thoughts When anxiety-related thoughts are bothering you, write them out. Your mind has a tendency to focus on thoughts that are passing through your mind; but the mind can relax a bit more when you record those thoughts on paper.
These basic strategies, combined with a healthier and more relaxing lifestyle, can be used by anyone seeking to take control by reducing their fear and anxiety.
Anxiety is a misfire of the system designed to save you when faced with danger. That same misfire can cause you to feel fear, even though nothing scary is present. Distractions and exercise can reduce the fear, but you may need to integrate other anxiety reduction approaches to keep it away.