Anxiety is an emotion that is mainly characterised by feelings of dread, worry, apprehension or fear. The experience of anxiety lies on a continuum from a normal ‘fear’ response (e.g. the survival instinct) to a more severe form which can lead to the disruption of a person’s daily life. Some might label this an ‘anxiety disorder’. But person-centred counselling, in common with some other humanistic schools of thought, tries to avoid ‘pathologising’ distress where possible. True, there is a physical dimension to anxiety, which can be helped with medication. But fear, worry and dread, as experienced in anxiety, are also a part of the human condition. In this blog, I’m going to attempt to draw together two strands: the biological and existential dimensions of anxiety.
In evolutionary terms, fear is a primary emotion. It serves a useful purposes, in that it drives us to avoid potentially dangerous situations or escape from actual danger, such as when we are confronted by a lion. So a bit of fear is natural and healthy for us. Our bodies are adapted to respond to this natural fear stimulus with the so-called ‘fight or flight’ response. In biological terms, when we experience a threat to our survival, the body releases stress hormones (adrenaline, cortisol) to get us ready, either to fight off the lion or run! Muscles tense, ready for action. Blood pressure goes up to increase circulation to muscles and the heart beats faster (we need it to). Breath quickens so that oxygen gets to the heart and muscles more efficiently. The digestive system closes down to free up all available oxygen; you can eat later, for now you need to just survive. Of most relevance to the discussion of anxiety, the rational brain (the neocortex) shuts down; when we are in real danger, trying to analyse the situation could slow you down, when what you really need to do is run! When a threat of this kind passes, the system relaxes again; job done. And the genius bit of the fight or flight response is that the physical exertion required in order to get away from the lion actually burns off all that adrenaline and cortisol. So far, so good.
Arguably, anxiety disorders arise when this natural stress response mechanism goes into overdrive, or stays ‘switched on’. Scientists who have studied the fight or flight response across different animal species have identified that Zebras, for example, return to an almost normal physical state the instant that the danger has passed. They outran the lion and live to see another day. And although the Zebra needs to be alert to the presence of the lion, it doesn’t remain on constant alert. Human beings, on the other hand, have the capacity for an anticipatory fight or flight response; we are able to worry about something in advance, even in the absence of any threat. Most of the anxiety-provoking 'threats' we encounter are not the kind we need literally to run away from. Unfortunately, the primitive part of the human brain that manages the fight or flight response can’t distinguish between life-threatening events (being confronted by a lion or an attacker) and other events that we might experience as ‘threat’ (excessive demands made of us, being stuck in traffic, or an unspecified sense of ‘dread’). These kinds of ‘threat’ are often more insidious and their impact on us can build up over time. But, the physical response we experience to this kind of threat is exactly the same as if we had suddenly seen a lion; the body releases the same hormones to help us fight or run. But because we're not actually using up all the adrenaline and cortisol (because we don't physical run away from a 'sense of dread'; it's just there), those hormones remain washing around the body, and may eventually become toxic. This can lead to a feeling of hyper-vigilance (i.e. always feeling as if something bad is about to happen) and this will eventually lead to both physical and emotional strain.
Anxiety also has an existential dimension, which seems to be unique to human beings. It is an understandable response to the ‘givens’ of existence: our essential aloneness; the pull between the need for autonomy and the need for others; the inevitability of death. Anxiety might also be a feature of our freedom as human beings, because freedom means we also have to take responsibility for the choices we make. You might think saying that anxiety is the price we pay for freedom is making a (philosophical?) claim too far, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who sometimes wishes other people would make those important decisions for me, because it feels too difficult for me and leaves me ‘fearful’. This can be true even at the trivial level, when I’m confronted with too much choice – what to wear, meals on a menu, ice cream flavours.
Anxiety can also lead to problems elsewhere. Anger and fear are very closely related in physiological terms, as both are natural reactions to threats. Chronic anxiety can leave a person feeling constantly angry, without necessarily knowing what that anger is ‘about’. Depression is also commonly experienced side-by-side with anxiety. When we can ‘deal with’ what life asks of us we might feel stretched but we also have a sense of achievement. When pushed beyond our normal coping capabilities and we can’t rise to those challenges, we might feel defeated and negative. Negative thoughts and feelings about ‘self’ are often a precursor to depression. Chronic anxiety also effects mood, sleep, social activity...all of which can also lead to depression. And so the vicious circle goes on.
The first step to dealing with anxiety is in acknowledging that something is wrong. The hardest part can be actually articulating the problem, as anxiety can often be difficult to pin down to any one thing. This might be where counselling could help. Person-centred counselling will aim to facilitate congruence (being real and honest with yourself). It will also support you as you work towards self-acceptance. Importantly, it will create a safe space in which you can explore some of the things you experience as ‘threats’ and how they affect you. This might involve giving some attention to emotional regulation or relaxation techniques e.g. how to bring the physical response under control so that it doesn’t overwhelm you.
It’s important to remind ourselves that we are only human. Worry and fear are part of the human condition; as rational beings, we have an inbuilt capacity for moments of ‘irrationality’ (and I use that word with caution). Perhaps life would be easier if we were more like the Zebra. But I’m not sure it would anywhere near as rich.