Accredited BACP Psychotherapeutic Counsellor, Accredited BABCP CBT Therapist, EMDR Therapist
1 August 2022
Anxiety gets such a bad rap doesn’t it?!? But it’s one of our most important emotions. Anxiety saves our life! It’s clever, yet stupid; a superhero, yet stifling; and brilliant, yet annoying.
Why does it have all these conflicts? Because when it’s activated in the right situations, i.e. when we’re in danger it saves us but when it’s activated when there is no danger it backfires and causes us to feel stuck and overwhelmed.
Let’s start at the beginning…
All living creatures on this planet experience anxiety, you can see it in deers caught in headlights, fish that swim away from predators, cats who arch their back with their hair standing on end as they hiss at another cat, the list would go on to cover all and every creature to a lesser and greater extent.
We can see it even in newborns; when mum leaves the room baby cries; the baby feels anxious in the separation and needs to know that mum will return. This anxiety is usually displayed as crying, but the sensations within the baby (which are implicitly remembered within our attachment relationships) are the same as for adults; they’re just as intense as when adults feel fear, but babies need the Other (their caregiver) to help soothe them and this is done through Co-Regulation until a child internalises this and builds their own emotional resilience.
We are born with the drive to survive, human babies cannot survive alone so we depend on others, this is in itself anxiety-provoking and children tend to automatically adapt in order to fit in, avoid danger and survive. This is especially true when children go through adversity or trauma, at home, at school or elsewhere. This adaptation is not a choice, it’s an automatic involuntary instinct.
So let’s go back to basics, how does anxiety help us…
When there is a danger, our brain (the Amygdala to be specific) notices this within milliseconds and prepares us incredibly quickly. You may well have heard of the Fight, Flight or Freeze Response - our body goes through a number of changes to help mobilise us to escape the threat.
Either our body speeds up (Hyper-Arousal) to fight or flight:
Our heart beats fast to pump the oxygen we’re breathing in to our muscles to prepare them to fight or run away, this makes us hot and thus we sweat to cool down.
As a result of breathing changes we can also feel lightheaded or dizzy; this is caused by a change in blood oxygen and blood carbon dioxide levels. As above, we need oxygen in our system for our heart to pump it to our muscles where we need it. Sometimes the oxygen level reaching our neck, brain, eyes and ears becomes irregular, jumping up and down, causing dizziness. However, when we are in hyper-alert anxiety our blood pressure increases which protects us from fainting (fainting is generally caused by a drop in blood pressure – notice your blood pressure when you’re anxious, it will probably have increased).
Other processes shut down, such as our need to digest food and absorb nutrients from our food (this is not important when we’re trying to stay alive in that moment!), so we produce less saliva and get a dry mouth.
Blood is also diverted from around our digestive tract to our muscles and as a result, our digestion slows and the muscles around our intestines can become knotted.
Less blood flows to our extremities, as that’s not where we need it in that moment too, so we sometimes feel weak in the arms or tingling in our hands or feet, and for the same reason our skin can also temporarily lose its colour.
Similarly, when body liquids are diverted from our digestive system, they are also diverted from other areas of the body such as around our eyes, so we can experience dry or sore eyes when anxious.
We feel tense when we’re anxious too; our muscles are tensed to prepare for action, blood vessels and nerves, which supply the face and head, originate in the neck and shoulders, so these are the areas which tend to feel tense first.
Our senses increase, we might be hypersensitive to noise, light, touch or smell. All of these sensitivities are to prepare our senses to see, smell, hear and feel more to sense danger and therefore try and escape.
None of these symptoms are dangerous in themselves, and return back to a normal state around 20-60 minutes after the danger has passed.
Or, our body slows down and goes into a state of Hypo-Arousal; the freeze response. When we freeze, we are trying to survive by ‘playing dead’, avoiding being noticed, we cannot emotionally take the danger so we block it out, or it’s safer to freeze, detach or shut-down until the danger has passed (especially when flight or fight might increase the danger or are impossible). This is particularly common for young children who cannot escape or fight so they freeze. Again, this is not a choice, it’s an involuntary survival mechanism. And thank goodness it is, without it it can be not only dangerous but unbelievably overwhelming.
So what happens when we freeze:
Our body slows down, our heart-rate decreases, our breathing is restricted (or it feels like we’re holding our breath), in order to appear more ‘dead’ or if we are injured so we lose less blood. In addition, freezing may allow us enough time to decide how to respond to the threat.
Our body goes cold (as less blood is pumping around).
Our body goes numb or stiff and heavy to help us stay as still as possible.
Freezing releases endorphins – this calms the body and relieve pain so we can better deal with a threatening situation.
Our memory can be impaired – this is especially important as it allows us to block out a terrifying event which may be too difficult for us to process at the time, or so we can continue to live in a continuing dangerous environment e.g. domestic violence relationship, bullying, a war or chronic childhood abuse.
It is rare, but we can also actually faint in this freeze system, in order to become temporarily unconscious in order to survive. If this has happened to you previously, it’s a survival response to ‘play dead’ and not to be feared.
Again, this freeze or dissociative response does not last after the threat has ended and we get our functioning back.
The lesser known survival responses are to Fawn and Attach. Two additional very important mechanisms which help us deal with danger and are driven by our threat system working effectively and producing the anxiety emotion. Usually as a result of enduring abuse, most often in childhood, and apparent in domestic violence relationships too.
So what is Fawning (also known as Submitting or Appeasing):
It allows us to try and avoid conflict by people-pleasing, doing as they say can make the danger pass quicker, make us more likely to avoid further danger or be as the result of being unable to escape the danger directly.
We become highly aware of other’s somatic (body) cues so we can quickly protect ourselves and meet their needs so we reduce the likelihood of an ‘attack’.
We will often lean forward in posture, with our chin forward as this is pleasing.
Eyes are scanning and reaching to spot signs of danger and appeasement.
We form caretaking relationships and are disconnected from our own needs.
And what is Attaching:
Attaching is about taking care of the other person’s needs rather than our own. Usually associated with a conflict between a fear-driven need for survival and attachment-driven need for social connection and to be cared for. As I said before children cannot survive all by themselves.
We focus on the relationship we have even with our abuser – this is common in Stockholm Syndrome, or falling in love with our kidnapper, or caring for a family member even when they’re harming us.
We are disconnected from our own needs and lose a ‘sense of self’ so we can maintain the relationship and have some of our needs met e.g. food, water, warmth.
Our senses are dulled so we can stay disconnected from ongoing feelings of danger.
Our shoulders may be hunched over in a submissive posture.
Just to reiterate – all these processes are involuntary, automatic and vital in our ability to survive danger. WE NEED ANXIETY TO LIVE. We could not survive without it.
So why don’t we embrace and love this survival part of us?
Because anxiety can be triggered over and over when there’s no real current threat, leaving us in an immobilised state which can feel unpleasant, exhausting and impact how we function in life.
Anxiety teaches us to:
Fight – but when there’s no-one or nothing to actually fight we remain feeling angry, tense and hyped-up. This can then come out in harmful ways in the present – we can take it out on other people and this can damage relationships, we can be mistrusting of others, be defensive, it can be turned inwards into self-harm or suicidality, we can attack others, we can damage property or other things etc etc.
Flight – so we avoid, but when there is no real danger what are we actually avoiding? We end up staying away from things that are in reality safe. This pattern of avoidance makes our life smaller. We also avoid internally too and distance ourselves from the pain, emotions and memories we have – we might use addictive behaviours e.g. substances, obsessing, worrying, co-dependence, trying to be perfect, gambling (anything really!) which may provide some temporary relief but end up causing more long-term harm.
Freeze – we dissociate from the present when we’re triggered even though now we’re safe (even when it feels dangerous), so we stop living in the present and this too can impact our functioning and relationships.
Fawn and Attach – we continue to please everyone in our life, don’t say “No”, put everyone else’s needs before our own, we become exhausted, burn out, we end up feeling miserable, helpless and understandably yet undeservedly ashamed.
Why does this happen?
As I said much earlier, our brain is incredibly intelligent, but also rather stupid! Parts of our brain don’t communicate well with each other and there’s good reason for that (to survive we need to act quick and think later) but it doesn’t help when there is no real threat. Our brains have a negative bias, again to save us, but that means we’re always automatically looking for threats so we can live. Our brain can also not tell the difference between real and imaginary danger (or positive). This is why we become scared when someone tells us a scary story, it’s not really scary but our brain says ‘better be safe than sorry’ and acts without thought.
Once we have gone through traumatic events our brain and body also tries to protect us from similar events in the future. We implicitly learn to spot similar triggers to avoid this happening again. Unprocessed traumatic events are not ‘time-stamped’ into our past (this is due to brain processes that are on and off at the time of trauma) so we can be easily triggered and it feels like it’s happening now. It’s not, but it feels that way so we act in the way our body knows it survived last time, either fight, flight, freeze, fawn, attach.
We need to learn that anxiety itself is not something to be feared, it is there to save us and the ones we care about. Don’t get me wrong it can get stuck and we need to find ways to move out of that, process the root causes of the anxiety and move on with life, learning to feel safe again, but it’s trying to protect us. I will be writing another blog on how to calm our body when we're anxious.
Befriend your anxiety – how was it trying to help you? Was it anxiety that actually saved your life? Thank that part, but at the same time update it so it knows that the danger is in our past and not our present, that we have more resources now. We can feel safer and start to learn how to choose different responses in safe situations. I will be writing more about this later too.
Also, I am an accredited therapist and offer in-person therapy in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) as well as online therapy within the UK. Check out my website and contact me for further information:
References / With Thanks to:
Dr Janina Fisher, June 2022 Training on Body-Oriented Therapy for PTSD & Complex Trauma, delivered by NScience UK.
Dr Zandra Bemford, January 2022 Training on An Introduction to Parts Work, delivered by Therapy North West.
Poly Vagal Theory introduced in 1994 by Stephen Porges.