Many of us live in fear of anxiety. In fact, anxiety itself is one of the reasons that panic attacks are so difficult to deal with. The experience of panic is so uncomfortable that sufferers become afraid of having another attack, and will do almost anything to avoid it. So what is it about anxiety that makes it so scary?
Think of the primitive caveman… he wasn’t very bright, and his environment was so dangerous that there were countless ways that he could be killed or injured every day. Fortunately his nervous system had a trick up its sleeve to help him survive: anxiety. We don’t usually consider anxiety in a positive light. At best it is an inconvenience, at worst it can take control of our lives. But the purpose of anxiety is to protect us and keep us safe. There was so much about the caveman’s environment that he didn’t really understand, so many unknowns, that there were literally a multitude of ways that he could be killed or injured. But being killed would not help him fulfill his biological imperative to propagate the species. Anxiety is designed to scare us into not doing something that might kill us. It’s our inbuilt ‘risk management system’, designed to help us makes decisions that will increase the chances that we will survive long enough to have offspring.
And it is because of this underlying objective that we can find change so difficult, because anxiety also discourages us from going outside our comfort zone. Think back to the caveman again. If eating red berries and getting water from the same watering hole are safe, then his internal risk management system will discourage him from trying the blue berries, or getting water from a different watering hole. Because eating the blue berries instead of the red, or getting water from the new watering hole instead of the regular one could turn out to be a disastrous decision. And perhaps his last.
So we’re biologically wired to be afraid of anxiety because, for it to be a good survival mechanism, it needs to be scary. It’s trying to protect us from doing something that might cause us injury or death. In other words, anxiety is scary for good reason.
The problem with anxiety is that, whilst it takes its job to protect us very seriously, it isn’t always very good at assessing what is and isn’t a true threat. If, for example, you find socializing difficult, your anxiety system will likely treat a friend’s birthday party as an enormous threat to you and act accordingly. For many people, public speaking triggers their anxiety, and the thought of having to give a speech or presentation to a group of people can bring on such a feeling of dread that it almost does feel as though their life was at risk. And yet none of these situations are life threatening, so why would our internal risk management system be triggered by them? To understand this, we need to understand that evolution doesn’t happen over generations, it happens over millions of years. Our bodies aren’t really so different to that of the caveman, and our anxiety system hasn’t caught up with the changes in our environment. We might not be facing the life threatening possibilities of being eaten by saber-toothed tigers or having to choose between good and bad berries, but our anxiety system still behaves as though risks and changes in our environment are risks to our lives.
So anxiety is meant to be scary, that’s its purpose. It’s trying to protect us from ourselves. The next time that your anxiety is triggered, remember that these are just the signals of an ancient risk management system and thank it for doing such a wonderful job of keeping you safe. Then turn your attention to finding productive ways to manage your anxiety system so that it doesn’t prevent you from doing things that are important to you. Just because your anxiety system says there is danger, doesn’t mean that there’s tiger that’s about to eat you!
Simone Eyssens is a Melbourne psychologist with over 10 years experience. She specialises in working with anxiety, depression and trauma, utilising mindfulness-based approaches to help her clients reclaim their lives and feel better. To find out more, and to read her mindfulness and wellbeing blog, visit her website: http://www.simoneeyssens.com.au