Your heart beat strikes. With it comes a sharp shot of adrenalin that explodes across your chest like a firework of electric heat, spiking through your veins until it tingled your finger tips, before sinking into the black hole of your stomach. Just in time for the next shot to be fired. Your heart beat becomes fast and audible, like the beat is being played on the drums of your ear. The room begins to shrink. Heat rises to your face. The doors to the outside world slam shut. You are now imprisoned within your own mind. Rational thought a distant memory. Eyes darting, mouth dry, body frozen. Panic. You are having an anxiety attack. When anxiety takes hold you are at the mercy of your brain and body. You feel like you are no longer the master of your mind but it of you.
The silent partner, the disease that is gripping western culture like a chemical boa constrictor, restricting people indiscriminately. It’s the monkey on everyone’s back that has become the elephant in the room. Rarely discussed in open forum because for some strange reason it has become associated with weakness. The perfect double-edged sword, both isolating in effect on your mind and your place in society.
It’s about time attitudes towards this epidemic were changed. Anxiety is ubiquitous across the west and it’s prisoners are left with little guidance, secretly shuffling to the doctor to be told they have depression or prescribed a cocktail of pharmaceuticals to become relied upon. Without addressing the problem, merely re-enforcing it. This process is like cello-taping over the cuts on the back of a man who sleeps in a bed of glass. Prescribed months of medication and perhaps sessions of counselling to find the root cause of your anxiety, when the root cause of anxiety is just being a human. Counselling, like the drugs, often acting as further re-enforcement that you are failing as a person in society and you have become weak so now you need to receive council. I assure you now that anxiety isn’t reserved for the weak, timid or powerless.
Search the briefcases of high-powered bankers, The medicine cupboard of CEO’s and the trailers of hollywood actors and you will find a cacophony of over the counter and outside the law drugs. Powdered return fire in the chemical warfare of the brain.
Don’t misconstrue me at this stage. This is not me saying that counselling has no place, or even drugs for that matter, I feel they can be a precious life line. My point is that we should not be allowing one and other to sink to the level where a life line is required. Drugs for anxiety are not a cure, but a mask.
Why do you think alcohol is imbibed so voraciously. The quelling of our anxiety, quieting the voice of angst, allowing us to speak freely and at ease, released from our neurosis laden shackles, only to be punished for these moments of freedom by a back lash of heightened anxiety when we crash back down to sobriety. Like it’s angry that it was briefly boxed. Some then re-medicate, forming a cyclical battle, ever avoiding sobriety’s side affects. Eventually falling into the hands of alcoholism. The reality of anxiety is that it’s taking lives on a MASS scale. It is the background noise of depression, the under current of addiction, it effects us all and yet… How often is it discussed? How much do you really understand it?
Very few people are left completely unaffected by anxiety, even those that live on the side of it that is manageable, the side that doesn’t lead to trips to the doctors, drug or alcohol abuse is still often limited by its effects. Public speaking is listed as the number one fear… number one! Higher than death, illness, spiders, snakes! This is because public speaking is almost guaranteed to come with a more than healthy dose of anxious stress.
Have you ever turned down an opportunity you wish you had taken because you knew it would have meant a dose of nervous energy? Is there something you avoid implicitly for the same reasons? Do you sometimes stay awake because as you lie in the still and quiet of night, inside your mind races providing spikes of adrenalin to keep you from your needed rest?
So why do we hate anxiety so much? Even just the sight of the word can make us feel a little unease.
The reason we avoid it so avidly and despise it so passionately is for a number of reasons. Firstly, It can be quite debilitating. When there is the noise of anxiety it is hard to focus on what you are saying and doing. This is not a useful thing to have going on when perhaps you are in a social environment, at work or performing any task that requires concentration. This is why we say stupid things when we are nervous, forget our well rehearsed speech or miss the penalty. Because of its distracting nature it has both a mental and physiological effect.
Secondly, we are supposed to hate it! It’s primary objective is to keep us alive. If we enjoyed a nice little bout of anxiety, I wouldn’t be here typing this now, you wouldn’t be reading it, in fact, our ancestors wouldn’t have made it out of the trees for long before they were killed. It was absolutely essential for survival that it was a feeling to avoid. Panic is perfectly evolved to make you do exactly that.. panic, get the hell out of there! Blood flows to your limbs to ensure you can run or fight to the best of your ability and so less oxygen gets to your brain meaning thought becomes less rational. Your brain is meant to be focusing on just one thing, survival in that instant. So it’s no wonder this isn’t useful to have when you are trying to prepare for a presentation or getting ready for a date.
Chronic anxiety is a nasty side effect of our society evolving beyond our anatomies.
The problem we have now is that we rarely need this fight or flight response in our day-to-day lives. We may need to jump out-of-the-way of a car or flee a building when the fire alarm goes off but in the most, we don’t have the same strains on our survival. Apart from the mental aspects of anxiety already touched upon, there are some other health concerns. Whilst in a cycle of anxiety, as explained above, your blood (oxygen) is prioritised for your outer extremities. This means vital organs, and your immune system are deprived of minerals and oxygen. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is also released. This is because it suppresses the inflammation response that our bodies use to heal, because in that moment, it is more crucial to remove the healing inflammation and allow for maximum blood supply to reach your limbs.
So, as you can imagine when anxiety or stress is chronic or experienced for a prolonged period of time it has a very negative effect on our immune system and ability to heal. It is my personal belief, a belief shared by far more qualified people than myself, That the rise in disease in the west such as cancer and heart conditions is irrevocably intertwined with the rise in chronic anxiety.
How has this chronic anxiety come about?
One of our greatest leaps in evolution was developing a frontal lobe. This allowed us to do something that is quite miraculous. Something that separates us from the animal kingdom and shot us to the top of the food chain. It allows us to “imagine”.
We were granted the ability within our minds eye to map out scenarios that had not yet happened. This had two primary uses. One, hunting. This meant we could predict the behaviours of our prey and also strategies as to how to best hunt. Secondly it allowed us to visualise scenarios that could put us in danger. One of the caveats of this introspective ingenuity is that it also provokes the same physiological reaction as if the event itself was taking place. Hence why you can get sweaty palms and nerves thinking about an upcoming speech or get aroused imagining a sexual scenario.
Now, we live almost exclusively in this mode. This forward thinking, constantly trying to predict how upcoming days, weeks and months will unfold and what will happen. Our society not only demands this of us but actively stimulates it. What will you buy next? How will you make your life a success? What will happen in your marriage? Your children? How will you progress at work?
Our society instills a lot of pressure on people. It’s geared towards individual success, chasing money, comparing yourself to your peers, trying to be more like your idols. Very few of us have the safety of a community that humans evolved to be within. You can see how these cultural traits and social pressures can instil growing amounts of anxiety.
In Eckhart Tolle’s revolutionary book “The Power of Now” he describes how anxiety fills in the gap between the present moment and an uncertain future. Which makes sense right? Most of us spend our time trying to predict the future, then getting anxious about our own predictions… it’s crazy really isn’t it. I mean how often our are predictions correct? Ever?
Anxiety forms a vicious cycle, it can get to the stage where you become anxious that you are going to become anxious. It is easy to see how this becomes a self-perpetuating and increasingly volatile cycle.
We have become so detached from what it means to be in the present moment that we have created a perfect breeding ground for anxiety. We quite literally spend very little time in reality, unless we are undertaking a task, such as I am writing this now.
If I pause for a second and allow my mind to wander….
Suddenly it wonders to thoughts of….
How will this article be received? What if everyone thinks it’s rubbish?
I have to go to the gym after this, how much is that going to hurt?
You can see how easy it is to stray immediately out of the present and into unhelpful anxiety creating fantasy. This is one of the reasons sports and especially extreme sports are so popular, they force you to be very “in the now”. You can’t be worrying about how your friends might think your haircut looks when you are on a mountain bike about to hit a tree at 40 mph.
So what can we do? are we stuck with it?
No, absolutely not.
No one can ever be completely free from anxiety, it wouldn’t be healthy, like I said early it’s important. We need it in moments of survival. In quick burst it’s a very useful tool, it can help deliver a sterling performance. It is also helpful to note that anxiety and excitement have almost the exact same response in our bodies, just the mind framing the feelings differently. We wouldn’t want to lose excitement! Sometimes when you are anxious merely considering the opportunity you face instead of the threats can help you understand that these feelings are one and the same. Let’s say you are just about to get married. Feelings of anxiety start becoming intense. You think “I’m going to be stood up there in-front of everyone I know, what if I trip” simply re-framing your attention to ‘This is going to be one of the most memorable moments of my life, I’m going to share it with all the people I love, then we are going to have a massive party!” This simple shift in thought pattern will show you that anxiety and excitement are really two sides of the same coin.
When you are really suffering with anxiety it feels like there is no way out. People don’t seem to understand you, they tell you to just get on with it, it will be ok, etc. These things are of little help. You need to approach anxiety in the way you may approach learning a new skill, like a language.
We are very lucky as a species in that we have very malleable brains and bodies. We can lift weights to gain muscle and we can re-train our thoughts to overcome anxiety. But it does take effort on your behalf.
Learn to be present
Learning how to bring yourself into the present moment and remain there as much as possible is one of the most powerful weapons against anxiety. It is, by definition impossible to be anxious when you are living in the now. There are various techniques ranging from meditation to simple exercises like, just thinking about what you can see, smell, here, feel and touch around you. Don’t think loads about these sensations, just observe them, the more you practice this, the more it will be in your nature to live in the moment. It’s funny, our culture has shifted so far from this that when you discuss coming back to the moment or what is essentially reality, people say “sounds a bit far out”, but spending most of your life in an imaginary future is the norm.
I highly recommend the Eckhart tolle book I mentioned earlier, the power of now.
Learning to pay less attention to the inner monologue that spouts out negative drivel is a huge step. Realising that it isn’t your true voice, instead a bad habit, pay it less attention and it will subside.
The way we allow our inner monologue to talk to us is obscene. Just for a moment, imagine that you are one person and your inner voice is another beside you, a supposed friend. Think how much of a hectic and rubbish friend it would be. “not sure you should have done that, You looking forward to work tomorrow, even though your really behind? You will probably get fired soon then how you going to pay your mortgage?. Your getting a bit fat, bet people are noticing.”
I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before you told that “friend” to F**k off, however, we allow our inner monologues to carry on this way, why? Start ignoring it, talk to yourself in a positive manner, like you would a friend you cared about. Learn to pay less attention to the negative thoughts, left them drift out of your mind without analysis.
Talk is cheap
So use it. It can be daunting to admit you are struggling with anxiety. Like I said earlier there is certain stigmas that have become attached to it, like weakness or lacking of confidence. This isn’t true. Understand you are not alone. Some of the most influential people in history had heavy battles with anxiety, Winston Churchill, Elvis Presley, just to name a couple! Having anxiety is not a poor reflection on your character. It can be bought on by having a highly analytic brain, acute awareness or in-depth compassion. If you are feeling that anxiety is getting the better of you, talk it over with someone. Be gracious with their advice but don’t expect them to always understand or be overly helpful. Just talking it over with someone who cares can still help you. If someone talks to you about their anxiety, don’t be dismissive, don’t think it’s cool to pretend you have never had anxiety. Be open, be understanding and patient. If we can’t support each other than we are all pretty screwed!
Makes small steps towards increasing your comfort zone
We all have a zone in which we are free of anxiety, for some it may be just sitting one to one with a friend, for others it can extend out as far as singing in front of Wembley Arena.
The difference in these two zones is nothing more than the art of expanding it. If each day, or perhaps even once a week, you do something that you feel anxious about, this will increase the size of your comfort zone and over time this will grow and grow, leaving less room for anxiety. The problem with the comfort zone is that when you are not actively increasing it, it will begin to decrease the smaller it becomes, the more room for anxiety. This isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
A couple of years ago I did a video on comfort zones if you would like to know more Click Here
Win the chemical warfare
high levels of cortisol and suppressed levels of the hormones dopamine and serotonin, often referred to as the feel good hormones are side effects of anxiety. Exercise will counter balance this. Reducing your stress hormone and releasing more of the feel good ones. This has a very positive effect on your over all anxiety levels. Daily exercise can be one of the best ways to make a large and quick impact.
Finally, understand that people have recovered from extreme levels of anxiety, crippling levels that mean that leaving the bedroom is a hurdle too large to consider. It can feel at times like your life will be blighted with this ailment forever. It won’t be. Don’t be too hard on yourself when your anxiety holds you back but try to take measures to free yourself.
When I was suffering with anxiety in my early 20’s I made a decision, any decision, I would ask myself, what decision would I make if fear did not exist. Then I would force myself to make that decision. What you find is that actually doing the thing that gives you anxiety, is never as bad as the anxiety that thinking about doing that thing is! Because you learn, actually that wasn’t so bad.
Sometimes, there is no event or identifiable factor that is causing your anxiety, It can often be that something happened and you experienced a bad anxiety attack and now you have felt that feeling, you live in fear of its return, therefore you begin closing down your parameters to protect yourself. This is a natural, but counter productive measure. You need to take steps to go in the other direction.
Don’t get confused between a hangover and anxiety
Often, as I mentioned earlier, the days after a bit of a drink up can be the worst for your feelings of anxiety! It is important to note that this is simply the alcohol, you have not become a more anxious person. Two reason this happens, One, Alcohol suppresses the nervous system. So while your body is detoxifying from last nights Vodka it also needs to kick-start your nervous system. The way it does this is with adrenalin, this mimics the feelings of anxiety, couple that with the hugely reduced levels of dopamine in your brain and tiredness from the lack of sleep and you have the perfect mimic for anxiety. Just remember it will pass. Pay it undue attention and it will be more likely to spread into your normal routine.
It’s my hope that this article may have touched upon some things that could help your understanding of anxiety. The more you learn about it, the easier it is to overcome. Another book to read is “Affluenza” by Oliver James, in which he explains the correlation of materialism and mental disorders such as anxiety and depression.
I feel more credence has to be given to this disorder. There are too many people walking through life beneath the shadow of anxiety, at the ransom of its grip with each decision they make.
If it remains unspoken, it’s left in the hands of the pharmaceutical companies. Us being a nervous wreck is a multi-billion dollar industry. So why cure us with information when they can make us reliant on drugs for a life time.
If anyone, at all would like to talk to me about any questions around this, share some views or just have a chat about their experiences, Feel free to contact me, or make a comment.
Here’s to living a life of true potential, with an inner stillness. Free.