Anxiety and Phobias
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a broad term and people often use the word to mean different things. One way to think about anxiety is as a state that human beings get into when they perceive that they are under some kind of threat. When we are in danger our bodies have a natural alarm system that allows it to respond quickly. This is often termed the fight or flight response. Generally speaking, when the fight or flight response is triggered our heart rate increases, our blood vessels constrict causing a blood pressure to rise, we begin to sweat, our digestion slows and our attention and thinking become narrow and focused on the threat. This natural alarm system is triggered by imminent danger – in other words the bad thing is happening right now.
However, because human beings have the capacity to think and predict what is going to happen, we are able to anticipate the threat before it is present. We can think of fear as our reaction to a danger that is occurring now, and anxiety as a kind of preparatory state that occurs when we are predicting that some kind danger is coming. In essence, anxiety is one of the ways our bodies and minds can respond to something bad that hasn’t happened yet, but is going to happen (or that we think could happen).
What is a phobia?
A phobia is an intense fear of a particular object or situation that is out of proportion with how dangerous the particular object is. Common phobias are of heights, insects, social situations, dirt or contamination, being isolated, becoming ill, feeling cramped or crowded spaces.
When is anxiety a problem?
In itself, anxiety is neither good nor bad. It can in fact be a very useful state that helps protect us from all kinds of dangers. However, it does take a toll and if it is present too often it can significantly interfere with our quality of life. Problematic anxiety is when the alarm system is set too sensitively and the costs of it begin to outweigh the benefits.
Imagine you had a precious jewel that was extremely delicate and vulnerable. If you thought about the possibility of it being lost or damaged, the anxiety you felt might prompt you to take precautions that somewhat protected the jewel and increased your chances of keeping it intact. In this case, the anxiety would be working for you.
If however, the anxiety was too strong and you felt compelled to bury the jewel deep underground where neither you nor anyone else could see it and you found yourself spending all your time worrying about whether it was safe and whole, then you would never actually be able to enjoy the jewel and rather than a source of pleasure it would simply become a source of stress and anxiety. In other words the costs of your anxiety would become so high that they would outweigh the benefits. You would be so scared of losing the jewel that you would become unable to enjoy it at all.
Anxiety then, is useful for us when it prompts us to take sensible precautions to prevent bad things from happening. It becomes problematic when it is out of proportion or when it persists after the threat is no longer there, and when it becomes intrusive enough that it interferes with our ability to live our lives.
What kinds of things trigger anxiety?
If anxiety is a response to an anticipated threat – then it can be useful to consider the kinds of things that are threatening for human beings. Some threats involve physical danger. Thus heights or spiders might be threats where what we are afraid could happen is that we will be physically harmed in some way.
Since human beings are also vulnerable to emotional pain, other kinds of situations can also trigger anxiety. Public speaking for instance, or social events can be anxiety provoking if we feel there is a risk of embarrassment or rejection. Likewise, the possibility of losing something we care about, such as status, possessions, wealth, health, relationships and so on, can trigger anxiety.
Why are some people more anxious than others?
In general we become overly anxious from two types of causes – nature or nurture. Nurture refers to our environment and experiences. If we live in a dangerous environment (be it physically or emotionally hazardous), or if we have enough dangerous experiences, our alarm system can become over-sensitized and problematic anxiety can develop.
Human beings differ greatly and some of us are just naturally more anxious than others. Sometimes, this is a useful trait to have – it can make us more careful and more considerate but it also puts us at risk for developing problematic anxiety. When anxiety has become a problem, it is usually due to an interaction between the two types of causes – a combination of nature and nurture.
What can we do about it?
Anxiety can be an extremely troubling emotion and can impact all areas of our lives. Therapy is one way people use to help themselves either reduce their anxiety or learn how to cope with it better, so that it interferes less with their ability to live the kind of life they want to live. In particular therapy can help us:
- Learn ways to calm the physiological features of anxiety – to help the body return to a state of relaxation more easily and efficiently
- Understand our anxiety better – what it is that might be making us anxious and why
- Learn to look at things in new ways so that they become less threatening
- Overcome our fears and worries by gradually exposing ourselves to the feared situation
- Provide the support we need to move past our anxiety
Help is available
If you are troubled by anxiety and would like help to understand it better, learn how to reduce it, and to learn ways of reducing its interference with your life, therapy may be a useful option for you. Our experienced psychologists will be happy to help. To ask a question please contact us via the form on this page or call (02) 9518 1061 to make an appointment with one of our psychologists today.