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Anxiety - what exactly is it?

A woman sat on the floor, leaning against a sofa, head in hands.

To understand anxiety, we must first understand fear.

Fear is “a natural response to a threat that can be either perceived or real”[1]. In emergencies fear can be helpful and rational, ie if you are being attacked or caught in a fire. It can also help you to avoid certain things or situations to keep you safe, such as standing near the edge of a cliff or holding a snake.

For early humans, fear was essential for survival when presented with physical dangers on a daily basis. Whilst the days of being hunted by sabre-tooth tigers are long gone, modern-day threats to life such as the cost-of-living crisis have taken their place. Human minds and bodies still work in the same way, but we can’t physically attack or run away from these problems!

Anxiety is a common feeling that sometimes gets out of control, text written in black on white background with green squiggle detail. Mental Health Awareness Week logo at bottom of image.

Anxiety is typically used to describe the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future. These thoughts and feelings can become persistent, and in extreme cases they can take over your life.

The brain is constantly on the lookout for anything that might threaten its equilibrium. Unfortunately, the brain is unable to distinguish between an external physical threat and an internal imagined threat, meaning the body will react in the same way if a tree were about to fall down onto you, or you walk past a tree and envisage being crushed should it fall over.

When the body senses a perceived threat, it prepares itself for ‘fight, flight or freeze’. In the brain…

…Your brain stem (survival brain) is activated to control your heart, lungs and limbs to enable you to run away or attack.

…Your limbic system (emotional brain) is activated to feel the emotion of fear.

…Your frontal lobe (higher functional thinking brain) is deactivated to divert energy to the brain stem and limbic system – this reduces your ability to think rationally.

The result? We may experience the following physical sensations:

  • Our heart beats fast – maybe it feels irregular

  • We breathe very fast

  • Our muscles feel weak

  • We sweat a lot

  • Our stomach churns or our bowels feel loose

  • We find it hard to concentrate on anything else

  • We feel dizzy

  • We feel frozen to the spot

  • We can’t eat

  • We get a dry mouth

  • We get very tense muscles [2]

In an emergency you can understand how some of these things would benefit us in combat or escape. In fact, sometimes an element of anxiety is needed in situations such as a driving test or a sports competition as it helps with motivation, increases alertness, speeds up thought processing, increases focus and facilitates concentration.

But when the mind is in a persistent state of fear, experiencing the above long-term can become quite draining. We may also feel “irritable, have trouble sleeping, develop headaches”[3], or struggle to concentrate on other things such as work or future-planning.

Many people said they feel anxious some or all of the time, text written in black on white background with green squiggle detail. Mental Health Awareness Week logo at bottom of image.

Feeling fear and anxiety on occasion is common to all of us. But when it becomes severe, long-lasting and debilitating, the first step in getting support is usually speaking to your GP. They will be able to offer help and advice, discuss medication possibilities, and signpost you to talking therapies or support groups. But there are many ways that you can also help yourself which we will explore in the next blog post.

[1] [2] [3] A huge thank you to the Mental Health Foundation for their incredibly helpful guide ‘How to overcome fear and anxiety’, found at

Image by 1388843 from Pixabay.

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