Imagine you're lying on a beach. It's a beautiful day, the sun is shining and there is a gentle breeze wafting over your body. Sounds of nature fill the air as you chat and laugh with family and friends. You are surrounded by people you love and respect and who love and respect you. You feel warm, contented and happy, totally relaxed, anxiety-free.
Now imagine a very different scene. It's the dead of night, you are alone walking down a dimly-lit alley. There are doorways on either side - who knows what's hiding in them, waiting to pounce? You are scared, your senses are heightened - your sight and hearing have become more sensitive, able to pinpoint the slightest movement or sound. Your breathing and heartbeat have become more rapid, you feel light-headed and dizzy, want to go to the toilet or throw up, your limbs feel shaky and your whole body is now charged with energy, full of anxiety, ready to fight or flee, possibly for your life.
These two scenes represent either end of the anxiety scale. In the first we feel warm, secure and safe, we are fully relaxed, virtually anxiety-free. In the second we are fully tense, in a state of preparedness, highly alert and scared.
Anxiety and panic are a series of mind and body reactions that have evolved over millions of years and are essential to the survival of all living things.
Anxiety probably serves many functions, but two of the main ones are:-
1. It helps prepare our body for action, make us more alert, ready to fight or flee from any imminent threat to our survival - this is related to the direct anxiety symptoms such as fast heartbeat, fast breathing, being jittery and on edge, trembling etc. We can go from being totally relaxed to totally tense in an instant (related to panic).
2. It causes us to plan ahead for any potential dangers and how we may deal with them - an excellent survival strategy (it's better to deal with a danger or avoid it before we get in the situation) but an unfortunate effect of this is that we can get anxious / nervous just thinking about situations - a main ingredient in many anxiety disorders - related to symptoms such as persistent negative thoughts (worrying and obsessions).
Anxiety is a part of being alive. Although we may not realise it, it is with us all at varying strengths throughout our lives:-
- Without anxiety [of being knocked down] we wouldn't be careful when we crossed the road.
- Without anxiety [of not having food and shelter, (or recognition, status,achievement)] we wouldn't go to work each day.
- Without anxiety, the performances of athletes, entertainers, executives, students etc.would suffer (if they bothered to perform at all)
The fear of being harmed (in some way),anxiety is a 'preparer' and an energizer, warning us of danger or potential danger and giving us the ability to avoid or deal with it. It is essential to our survival, yet for a number of reasons it can increase in strength and presence. It may come to be with us more intensely and give rise to anxiety disorders involving such things as persistent worrying and apprehension, panic, phobias, OCD and depression.