We all experience a vast array of emotions in our daily life. Emotions colour our world and guide us in our actions and behaviours; hence the word (e) motion. The feeling of anxiety is one of these many emotions that we experience by simply being a human being. In this post, Kate Kearney, a psychotherapist at Strive Clinic explores the nature of anxiety and how therapy can give you the tools to help you manage its symptoms.
What Is Anxiety?
Everyone can relate to having experienced anxiety from time to time in daily life, as it is the body’s natural response to stress. Yet the experience of anxiety can be extremely distressing and debilitating when it becomes excessive, persists or appears out of the blue.
Anxiety is the body’s internal alarm system and protector from anything we perceive as threatening and dangerous. Our early cave-man ancestors would not have survived long without the quick life-saving response of anxiety to get them out of trouble and keep their genes alive. Ironically however, anxiety works so well and so quickly it can click into action even if the threat is something we are only thinking about. Therefore, through no fault of our own, the alarm system of anxiety can begin to trigger habitually leaving us in a state of high alert which can be uncomfortable and very distressing.
How Is Anxiety Experienced?
Anxiety impacts us in a variety of ways. Once triggered, adrenaline floods through the body and causes sudden and strong physiological changes to occur– the heart starts to beat quickly, the breath becomes quick and shallow, muscles tighten, stomach churns, thoughts race, we can break out in cold or hot sweats and the bladder can relax causing a feeling of needing to pass urine urgently.
In addition to these physical changes anxiety also focuses the thoughts in on what is concerning us and thereby narrows our focus of attention, overestimates the difficulty at hand (we are programmed to be better safe than sorry) and crucially we often underestimate our own ability to cope in the face of the challenge. Like all emotions, anxiety influences how we behave and it wants to protect us by causing a ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction to occur. As a result, it can lead us avoiding or retreating from situations.
When Is Anxiety A Problem?
Although anxiety is a normal human emotion it can be extremely frightening and cause great distress and difficulties when it persists for long periods of time, when symptoms cause physical discomfort and worry, and when it stops us from doing the things we want to do in life. We can become trapped in the vicious cycle of anxiety and this can feel like a very scary place to be.
Although there are no accurate figures it is estimated that 1 in 9 people in Ireland will experience an anxiety disorder over their lifetime and it is one of the most common mental health problems along with depression affecting the populations of Ireland and Europe (St Patrick Hospital).
How Can Therapy Help?
The cognitive behavioural therapy approach to the cycle of anxiety looks at the complex interaction between our thoughts, emotional experience, physical sensations and behaviours. We can learn to reduce the distressing experience of anxiety by bringing a compassionate awareness to our own individual anxiety cycles and learning to gently break them to find alternative ways of perceiving the situation and coping.
Kate Kearney is a Psychotherapist with an interest in both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Compassion-Focused Therapy. She is available for appointments in Strive Clinic Galway.
Psychotherapy services (with Denise O'Boyle, Child & Adult Psychotherapist) are also available in Strive Clinic, Killybegs, Co. Donegal.