In this FAQ series, we asked clinical psychologist Catherine Gallagher what anxiety feels like.
In today’s society we often hear phrases such as “that gives me anxiety”, or “I feel so triggered by that.” They become so commonplace in our speech that we can sometimes forget the seriousness of what anxiety might feel like for those who have to constantly live with this condition or face daily situations where such a response might arise. So what does anxiety feel like and why does our body react this way?
Anxiety isn’t designed to feel good. It doesn’t arise to help lull us to sleep or relax into a state of calm. Anxiety presents as a result of the body helping us to prepare for any perceived threat in our immediate or future environment – triggering our body’s natural in-built alarm system in order to give us the best chance of survival. It is loud, insistent and unwilling to be silenced until we know that everything is okay. Consider this alarm system to be similar to that of a smoke detector in your house. The alarm only goes off when danger is sensed, screaming out to every corner of your house to make sure you’re aware that you need to get out. In this situation, same as your body’s natural in-built stress and anxiety response, a slow lullaby wouldn’t be a very effective alarm system. Anxiety is designed to feel aversive and get our attention.
While seemingly more commonplace in today’s society, anxiety is not a new response or diagnosis. Going right back a few centuries, our bodies’ natural in-built stress and anxiety response stems from survival of the fittest – or more accurately the hunt or be hunted exchange of the cave-man era. When being chased by a predator, our bodies’ systems would naturally kick up a gear, responding in the best way fit to see us through the immediate danger or threat. The issue that arises in today’s society is that while our anxiety and stress response is still the same, our identified threats however are not. Nowadays we don’t find ourselves sprinting away from beasts or fighting for our lives, instead these threats come from inside and around us. Not feeling good-enough, receiving an upsetting email, seeing an ex-partner who treated you poorly; we are constantly exposed to stress stimuli everyday, and although not life-threatening, our inherent basic response has still not changed.
Designed to get our attention and help us escape the perceived threat, anxiety presents by very physical means within our body. Linked in with our stress response, anxiety triggers our sympathetic nervous system – more commonly known as the ‘Fight, Flight or Freeze Response’. Each of us tends to fall into one of these three categories depending on the situation, however our body helps to prepare us for the best chance of survival either way. As our response heightens, so too does it increase both our heart rate and breathing rate. This reaction occurs in order for us to increase our oxygen consumption, allowing more air into our lungs and blood to our working muscles. The same response occurs with intense or prolonged exercise. Within our body our muscles also begin to tense, preparing us for a fast physical reaction (such as fight or flight), while our sensory response also allows for improvement in our vision and hearing.
However our stress and anxiety response goes even deeper than this. Looking back at the cave-man days of trying to escape from a predator, our body reacted accordingly to that threat to give us the best chance of survival. Ever felt like the hairs on the back of your neck were standing on end? Chances are it’s because they actually were. From an evolutionary point of view, back then humans were likely covered with more hair. This excess body hair would have provided warmth, protection from the sun and insects, as well as playing a crucial role in survival. If a predator was coming your way back then, having your hair ‘stand on end’ would have helped make you seem bigger and scarier, which may have potentially helped in scaring the predator off. Another leftover evolutionary anxiety and stress response – during such fight, flight or freeze situations, our blood flow is drawn into our core, sending less through to our extremities. The reasoning for this is simple. If bitten by a predator it is important for your body to keep your vital organs safe and well protected. This also means it would be less likely you would bleed out in this life-threatening situation, giving you a better chance of survival.
Although triggered from different situations to today’s world, overall the general feeling of and response to anxiety and stress hasn’t changed throughout time. While some describe the feeling as similar to a heart attack, others as a panic attack – anxiety takes its place as a feeling designed to make us alert to our surroundings, highlighting to us (sometimes wrongfully) any perceived threat we may encounter.