Why do we feel anxious?

Although it’s unpleasant, anxiety is not all bad. Imagine living a few thousands of years ago. You’re out hunting and suddenly you notice a tiger about to pounce on you. Your body’s inbuilt mechanism to ensure your survival kicks in. It shuts down what is not important at that moment, such as your digestive system, and prepares your body for immediate action: it raises your blood pressure, increases your heart’s beating and breathing frequency, tenses your muscles, and focuses all your attention on one, and only one, thing: survival.

On another day you are again walking in the jungle. This time you notice a fresh paw-print of a tiger. Your body immediately goes into alert-mode, prepared you for a possible attack. You check whether you’re safe and take the more sensible route: away from that location. And when you know you’re away from the tiger’s territory, you feel a sense of relief.

This illustrates two important aspects of anxiety:

  1. Anxiety is not primarily focused on what is happening now, but on what might happen in the future. In order to avoid being harmed, it is better to be alerted to a tiger possibly being around before it is actually in front of you and attacks you! So we end up focusing our attention on trying to anticipate possible bad outcomes so that we can avoid being in a dangerous situation in the first place.
  2. Anxiety also teaches us to avoid what we perceive as being dangerous situations. By seeing the tiger paw-print and so becoming more alert to possible danger, we experience unpleasant bodily sensations of anxiety, and we walk away from the possible danger. When we leave that area of possible danger we experience relief, and our body feels better. This teaches us that when we walk away from something that makes us feel anxious, we will feel better.

But why is this relevant for us today? We don’t walk around in jungles with tigers roaming around us! The things is that our mind does not distinguish between real and unreal danger. We react to a phone call from our boss, to our partner being angry, or to an email following a job application, in the same way as we would react to the possibility of a tiger about to attack us. And so, regardless or not of whether we are at risk of dying, we end up focusing on the future and we try to avoid the dangers our mind is perceiving.

Let us take stage fright as an example. There is nothing life-threatening in going on stage to sing in front of an audience. And yet, such a situation may leave you with a feeling of terror, fearing that you will make a fool of yourself. Although this is not a real life-threatening situation our mind reacts as if it were so, and thus triggers our alert system. As a result, when we’re waiting to be called on stage, our mind, emotions and body act in the same way as if we are in imminent danger: our hearts start pounding, we start breathing shallowly and rapidly, we might start feeling nauseous and have sweaty hands. All of these are the unpleasant sensations of us being alerted to (in this case psychological) danger. If we decide to leave and not go onto the stage, we immediately feel a sense of relief and feel emotionally and physically better because the symptoms of anxiety leave us. The next time we’re asked to go on stage we start anticipating what a negative experience it would be like. We also remember how we felt when we decided not to go on stage, how much better we felt the moment we stepped away. So when the unpleasant sensations of anxiety start creeping back in, we know what is our best way out. We have learnt how to anticipate ‘danger’ and avoid it!

There is, however, an additional aspect to anxiety. If we go back to the tiger-in-the-jungle example, that kind of anxiety is useful because it activates our bodies immediately. Without it we would react too slowly to danger and risk losing our life. Our ancestors, upon finding a safe space, would have shaken off the anxiety, and continued their normal life. However, if instead you were to find yourself in an enclosed space with a tiger, you would constantly be fearing that the tiger will attack you. Your body will maintain a constant state of being on the alert and continuously release stress hormones. Although these hormones are useful when we’re in danger, prolonged exposure to them wears down the body. This puts us in a constant state of anxiety, in what is called chronic anxiety. Unless we get rid of the anxiety we will keep on experiencing its symptoms even if there is no trigger. Every sound of a broken twig, every sound of rustling leaves will constantly trigger us as if a tiger is actually in front of us.

So, to sum up how anxiety works, we first perceive (real or unreal) danger, our mind prepares us for action, but this makes us experience unpleasant sensations in our body. So we start anticipating when we might experience this negative experience, and so learn ways to avoid feeling the unpleasant sensations.