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What is anxiety? 

‘Anxiety.’ We hear it everywhere and the word is increasingly used as if it is something we ‘have.’ ‘Having anxiety’ is quite misleading, however, as it is far more of an experience and one which we all encounter at times. For those who struggle with anxiety, though, it is a frequent and often far more extreme experience which can have a negative impact on everyday lives.  

‘Stress’ and ‘anxiety’ are often used interchangeably, with people referring to themselves using the adjectives, ‘stressed’ and ‘anxious,’ but there is a clear distinction. Stress is often present in our lives. Stress links to external factors which challenge us, but we may be able to deal with a certain level of stress and it will not necessarily lead to anxiety. At times, it will, but this anxiety may be expected and brief enough to tolerate, such as exam stress for example. When anxiety is frequently present in our lives, however, it becomes difficult to tolerate. When people begin to struggle in this way, there is sometimes a sense of shame, for feeling anxious, but this is often due to a lack of awareness of what anxiety actually is. 

What happens in the body? 

Anxiety starts in the brain but it is far more complicated than most of us realise. Anxiety occurs when you anticipate danger and your senses send a message to a part of your brain (the amygdala that processes your emotions) to interpret this perceived danger. If the danger is acknowledged, this alerts another area of the brain (the hypothalamus) which triggers a response in the nervous system, preparing you to save yourself through fight or flight. It does this by activating the adrenal glands which release adrenaline into the blood. This, in turn, sends additional oxygen to the brain, to ensure that you are as alert as possible, and energy will be provided through additional glucose and fat. Once this has happened, the brain, the adrenal glands, and also the pituitary gland, await further signals to decide whether the sympathetic nervous system needs to remain in this state. If the perception of danger remains, hormones are released, resulting in cortisol. This will then cease when the perception of danger ceases.  

The sympathetic nervous system triggers this stress response but the nervous system also has a parasympathetic nervous system which is there to sooth the body once the danger has been removed. If the perception of danger remains, however, the stress response stays active and, if this happens continually, it can ultimately contribute to both physical and mental health issues.  

Anxiety, therefore, is not something to be ashamed of. It is a significant physiological response to the perception of danger so it is not just a series of worrying thoughts; it is very genuinely felt. It has been argued that, as original forms of danger have largely been removed, such as the fear of being eaten by a bear for example, we have created fear elsewhere, as evolution has failed to keep up with our changing environment. The media and social media also play their part in adding to the perception of fear. We live in the safest society ever but it doesn’t feel like it! 

The solution 

Sometimes, being aware of what anxiety is can comfort those who struggle with it as they become more aware that what they are feeling is very real. This doesn’t change the feeling though.  

The good news, however, is that it is possible to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers the relaxation response, and one incredibly effective way of doing this is through hypnosis. Hypnosis will naturally slow your breathing and relax your body. As well as calming you, and being enjoyable, this also creates more space for your brain to consider new possibilities. It is hard to believe this before you’ve experienced it but think of the last time you became really stressed about a task you were completing. As your frustration builds, your ability to solve problems decreases. This is due to the stress response; when your body is preparing for fight or flight, it becomes more aware and energetic but, in order to do so, you lose some of your more intellectual functions as you don’t need to think deeply when you’re just trying to survive. When you’re so stressed that you can’t think straight, moving away, doing something else and returning often allows you to solve that problem. Hypnosis does just this; it separates you from that stress response and enables you to think in new ways, whilst teaching you how to relax. Combined with therapy, this can be life changing. 

So, is it really all in your head? No. It’s in your whole body, but it starts with your perceptions. You can change these perceptions, though, and then the possibilities are endless. 

15th August 2023

Anxiety: Is it really all in your head? - Hampshire Therapy Room