Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Anxiety: Fear of the Unknown

It’s a normal human emotion which we’ve all experienced at some point or other and come out the other side but sometimes anxiety morphs into something much more overwhelming.  How do we recognise when it’s time to seek help and take on this ‘burden’ which might be controlling us? 

Anxiety disorders vary in their nature and severity.  You might be familiar with anxiety-related conditions such as generalised anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias, health anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorders.  These all differ in many ways from each other but the one thing they all have in common is FEAR.

Anxiety is about fearing the future – the future can be one second from now or 50 years from now but either way there is a fear of the unknown, of what could happen between now and then.  The future is, by its very nature, unknown (unless you believe in psychic powers) and therefore we cannot control it.  We can plan for it and prepare the best we can, but we cannot predetermine it. When we feel anxious, our senses are heightened, as we revert to a very primal state, where we have the options of ‘fight or flight’.  Anxiety helps to keep us safe by making us more alert to danger, making us perform better at certain tasks and it can prompt us to move from a state of inaction to taking positive action.  Think about times when anxiety might have been useful to you – maybe you were nervous about an exam or a job interview, so you prepared yourself so as to minimise the chance of failure.  Maybe you were in a life or death situation and you had to perform an extraordinary task in order to survive or to save someone else.  In contrast, anxiety becomes unhelpful when we are reacting where there is no danger or threat, eg that a harmless house spider is going to jump out of the bath and land on us, when actually spiders don’t do this.  Anxiety can also be unhelpful when it is disproportionate to the level of threat, eg when someone has a fear of crowds and that this fear prevents them from leaving the house for fear they may get caught up in a crowd.  In such cases, anxiety does not serve to protect – it becomes an imprisonment and stops us from living.

The unpredictability of life can be extremely difficult for some people and so they spend valuable time and energy ‘living’ in a hypothetical future, where all sorts of catastrophes could occur.   This might be based on past experience of actual events or a perception that they are in an unsafe environment but whatever the root cause, living in the ‘here and now’ suffers at the hands of the dreaded dangerous future. It is only through living and experiencing life, that we can believe we will be safe most of the time.  When something happens to challenge this belief, the ability to keep things in perspective is how we push through and carry on living.

It is very important to understand that you don’t choose to have anxiety in your life.  It is there for a reason, whether it is beneficial or not.  Try to accept this and stop blaming yourself for feeling the way you do as it’s counterproductive to think otherwise.   If you can stop this blame game, you are likely feel better about yourself and therefore more likely to feel able to face your fears.   Talk to others who won’t judge you.  It really can help.

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