So, what is anxiety? It’s a good question to ask. Well, stick around because this post will answer that question.
What is Anxiety?
This may seem like such an obvious question – because you’ve experienced it. But the more precisely you describe a problem or an emotion, the greater ability you have to do something about it.
In this post, you’ll learn the difference between stress, anxiety, and worry because knowing the difference can give you a ton of tools to change your relationship with all three.
Where did you feel it?
Anxiety is, in essence, your reaction to the perception of being in danger. Especially physical danger, so if you were on the roof of a skyscraper, your brain would perceive the potential danger and trigger the limbic system to send out a super loud warning to you in the form of thoughts and physical sensations of anxiety.
Anxiety Serves a Function
Emotions aren’t just “bad things that happen to you”, emotions serve a function. I go into depth on the function of emotions in my “How to Process Emotions course”. But the emotion of anxiety is meant to help keep us safe from danger, to motivate us to move away from the edge of cliffs, or to stay away from venomous snakes and spiders.
And to make emotions powerful motivating forces, they aren’t just in our mind, they’re in our bodies too. Stress, Anxiety and Worry aren’t the same thing, they’re three different aspects of our Fear response. And when we know the difference, we can tailor different skills and tools to work through them. Just like with people, when we know their names, we can learn how to relate to them.
So, let’s start with Stress.
Stress is the physiological reaction to threats. Stress is what’s going on inside our bodies. It’s rooted in the more primitive part of the brain and it’s instinctual and unconscious. It happens without thinking and faster than we can think. As you watched that guy do dumb things on the edge of the cliff, did your heart rate go up? Did your hands get sweaty? Did you turn away? Did your stomach tense up? Or did you feel a surge of adrenaline, excitement and wonder? When we perceive danger, our body responds with a chemical reaction. This is also called the fight/flight/freeze response.
The FFF response shoots first and asks questions later– it’s very powerful and rapid, but it’s not always accurate. Have you ever been startled by something in the night, only to find out it was actually safe or funny?
Stress serves a really vital function in helping us respond to immediate and physical threats by shutting down some physiological processes (like digestion) and activating others like adrenaline to increase performance.
There’s a big myth that all stress is bad for you. But it’s not true, in the short term anxiety and stress won’t hurt you. Your body has a natural way to resolve the effects of the stress response. But, if stress becomes a chronic state it can have very detrimental effects on the body like heart disease, high blood pressure, and frequent illness.
Chronic stress can harm you, but that can be avoided. Anxiety – the feeling – won’t harm you, and trying to avoid it makes it worse. OK, so that’s stress, the physiological activation of our nervous system. It’s what happens in our bodies.
Worry is the thinking part of anxiety– worry includes thoughts like “What if he falls!” “Why is he doing that!!!” “What if I fail my test?” or “Is she mad at me?” Worry often revolves around future events or the unknown, and it is rooted in our prefrontal cortex-the thinking part of the brain. Worry can be very functional, sometimes it helps us solve problems, but if worry becomes compulsive it can fuel anxiety and depressive disorders. Later in this course you’re going to actually learn how to stop worrying, to set really good boundaries around that thinking part of your brain.
Anxiety is the intersection of stress and worry. It’s rooted in the limbic brain. It is a feeling, an emotion closely connected to fear. But where fear is usually about a short term, immediate threat, Anxiety is more about nebulous, future events and it’s associated with dread, foreboding, or vigilance. Anxiety helps people be watchful, but when it dominates our lives it makes it difficult to relax, feel joy or move in the direction we value.
If we want to tackle our anxiety and find ways to feel better, we need to address the two aspects of our anxiety response. To deal with our worries, we’ll learn cognitive skills that change our thinking. And when it comes to our stress response, we’ll explore interventions that focus on calming our body.
The Cause of Anxiety: Perceived Danger
So Anxiety is a functional, helpful emotion that helps protect us from danger, it includes stress and worry. But there’s one more aspect that we really need to address when it comes to anxiety.
Like a few minutes ago, you weren’t anywhere near the edge of that building, but just sitting in your chair, 100% safe. Your body actually created physical changes- and anxiety probably popped up for you. What’s the deal with that?
Your amazing brain has the unique ability to imagine danger when we’re actually safe. This serves a function (motivating us to take action to plan and prevent danger in the future) but also can make us sick (feeling anxious in the present moment when we are actually safe).
So worrying about an upcoming test, that jolt of anxiety could help you get motivated to study, or if you don’t know what to do with that worry, it could make you feel sick to your stomach and you choose to procrastinate or avoid thinking about school.
With Generalized Anxiety Disorder, the worry thoughts are constantly, chronically creating the sensation of anxiety, the danger emotion, when we’re just going about our day. With PTSD, flashbacks make you feel like you’re actually in danger when you’re quite safe. Sometimes it’s helpful to call this “Perceived danger”. When we feel fear about something that is an actual threat in the present moment, that is called “Actual danger”. We’ll spend more time on this later in the course. But it’s important to realize that we frequently have a strong physical reaction to the perception of danger, when we are actually safe.
The anxiety response is quick, powerful, and frequently inaccurate. It’s like your body’s smoke alarm, very rarely, a smoke alarm sounds when there’s a fire, but they go off dozens of times when you’ve taken a shower that’s too steamy or you’ve cooked bacon a little too long. It’s annoying, but we want our smoke alarm to be sensitive, just in case there is an actual fire, we just also want the ability to turn it off when we’re actually safe. Anxiety helps us notice dangerous situations and focuses our attention, so we stay safe. We always need to ask “Is this actually dangerous?” You’ll learn more on this as you work through the course.
Step 1: Awareness
The first step of emotion management is awareness. Begin to notice when you feel anxiety. See if you can explore and describe the two different aspects of it. Where does anxiety show up as stress in your body? What does it feel like? How does anxiety show up as thoughts? What do those thoughts sound like? It may be helpful to describe your experience out loud or write it down. Use your workbook to draw a map of your body and how anxiety shows up. As you get better at describing what the anxiety experience is actually like, you’ll gain a little more control over it.
Step 2 : Let Go of Judgement
The second big step in changing your relationship with anxiety is letting go of judgment. We all know that when you’re in a relationship with someone and you judge them it harms your relationship. Same thing with emotions. In a future video in this course, you’ll learn how to make peace with anxiety. But for now, just start to honor the function of anxiety -it’s trying to keep you alive. Instead of labeling it as bad, awful, etc. use a descriptive term. Uncomfortable, “This is hard” “this is difficult”.
Alright, let’s get better at feeling! You got this!