Why do we have to be anxious? Human beings have evolved to experience anxiety in order to escape from threats, or to avoid encountering threats in the first place. The threats we encountered in the distant past were of a more life-threatening nature (think being chased by a saber-toothed tiger). Back in those times, most threats were dealt with by fighting or fleeing (or to a smaller extent by freezing). These days, we are far less likely to die in the course of a normal day. For better or for worse, our brains and bodies are still prepared for an existential threat and still respond as if for a “fight or flight”. Our heart rate increases, we breathe more rapidly and shallowly, our attention narrows onto the perceived threat, and we experience other changes which are associated with the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These body and brain changes often alarm us. They seem so strong and out of control. They cause even more anxiety hormones, which further escalates the anxiety experience. In this heightened emotional state, we can lose sleep, be less productive at work and start fights with loved ones. The peak of these escalations is what we call a panic attack.

Or perhaps we don’t experience any of the above at all. We have learnt to cope. Unfortunately, some coping styles become an even bigger problem than the original anxiety response. One group of unhelpful coping methods are called avoidance. We avoid social situations, or making phone calls, or being in crowded places, or talking in large groups. Sometimes we avoid thinking about our worries. We zone out in front of the computer, or gaming console, or TV. We consume alcohol or other drugs. We do harmful things that give us a temporary escape like gamble or shop with money that we don’t have. Another group of unhelpful coping mechanisms are called safety behaviours. Maybe we only go to crowded places with a friend. Maybe we only go out socially if we are drinking alcohol. Maybe we check the front door dozens of times before leaving the house.

A third unhelpful coping style is related to over-engagement in problem solving activities. Problem solving is usually a healthy and useful way to cope with anxiety. However, you can have too much of a good thing. We might burn-out by over-working, due to our fear of failure. We might burn relationships by treating them like a problem that has to be solved, due to our fear of abandonment.

Anxiety can be your friend. In one of psychology’s earliest studies, Yerkes & Dodson (1908) found that people’s performance on a number of performance tasks was negatively affected by extremely high anxiety (no surprises there). However, they also found that too little anxiety was also associated with poor performance. Anxiety can be your friend: it can direct your attention to problems that need to be solved, give you the drive to solve them, and help you structure your life so that the problems are less likely to return. Good treatment for anxiety disorders will likely reduce your anxiety levels, but they will not take your anxiety away. Good treatments for anxiety demystify the anxiety experience, identify the beliefs that are fuelling the anxiety response and change the unhelpful coping patterns. Good treatments for anxiety allow you to feel more in control of your anxiety while decreasing your need to feel in control of your anxiety.

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