What causes anxiety?


Anxiety is a survival instinct that has evolved over millions of years in order to protect us. It is a series of reflexes and responses that affect our mind and body as we become prepared to avoid or deal with dangerous situations.

How Anxiety Works

… 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 that 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 walking alone 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. In the second we are really anxious, prepared for danger – highly alert and scared.

Anxiety protects us in 2 main ways:-

  • It helps to prepare our body for action, making us more alert and ready to fight or flee from any imminent threat to our survival. This is responsible for the direct physical sensations (such as rapid heartbeat, fast breathing, being jittery and on-edge, trembling etc.) that we feel when anxious. In real danger we can go from being totally relaxed to extremely anxious in an instant which is panic.

This aspect of anxiety makes us feel physically scared, particularly when our heart speeds up. Indeed, some research shows that heartbeat rate may be one of the main indicators of anxiousness. In one experiment – what distinguished those bomb disposal volunteers (all heroes) that had been decorated for gallantry from those that had not was the rate of their heartbeat. The ones that received medals maintained a lower cardiac rate when making stressful decisions. (Ref.1)

Here, anxiety forms the basis of problems such as general nervousness, social phobias (in fact, almost all phobias) and panic disorder.

  • It causes us to plan ahead for any potential dangers and how to deal with them – an excellent survival strategy (it’s better to deal with a danger or avoid it before we get into the situation) but an unfortunate effect of this is that we can get anxious / nervous just thinking about situations.

This aspect of anxiety leads to being mentally scared and apprehensive and involves vague thoughts that something bad may happen.

A main ingredient in many anxiety problems, this relates to symptoms such as excessive and obsessive thinking, planning and worrying. It underlies anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and also plays a major role in severe depression.


Terry Dixon



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