More about Stress, Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Phobias
The ‘Fight or Flight’ Reflex
Stress, anxiety and fear are actually important for survival because they act as a mechanism to protect the body against danger by triggering the release of hormones, such as adrenalin. Adrenalin causes your heart to beat faster to carry blood where it’s most needed. You breathe faster to provide the extra oxygen required for energy. You sweat to prevent overheating. Your mouth may feel dry, as your digestive system slows down to allow more blood to be deflected to your muscles. Your senses become heightened and your brain becomes more alert. These changes enable the body to take action and protect itself in a dangerous situation, either by running away or fighting a foe. It is known as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Once the danger has passed, other hormones are released, which may cause you to shake as your muscles start to relax.
The response is useful for protecting you against physical dangers. However, your body reacts in the very same way to situations that you find threatening, but which you can’t deal with appropriately by fighting or running away. Situations like this may include public speaking, a driving test, or having an injection.
And while we may be able to face and deal with one off situations, it is when the perceived or actual demands (physical, emotional and mental) take their toll over time and exceed our ability to cope that unhealthy stress occurs. More accurately this can be described as “distress”.
Anxiety is the feeling of fear we all experience when faced with threatening or difficult situations. It helps us to avoid dangerous situations, makes us alert and motivates us to deal with problems.
Remember that anxiety is something we all experience from time to time. Most people can relate to feeling tense, het up, uncertain and maybe fearful at the thought of something significant that is on their horizon, like starting a new job, having an operation or getting married. You may worry about failing, being rejected appearing foolish or not being able to cope if things do not go as planned. Maybe you are worried more about letting down others who rely on you. In turn, these worries can affect your sleep, appetite and ability to concentrate. However, when everything goes well, the anxiety goes away. Indeed anxiety is essential and very useful in the short term as it can sharpen the mind, make us prepare to do well and give us energy that enhances performance.
It is when anxiety becomes chronic that we suffer. It keeps the body in a state of constant emergency alert and causes abnormal physiological functioning. Quite literally, when anxious feelings become too strong they can cripple us.
Panic is defined as a sudden unexpected surge of anxiety that makes you want to leave the worrying situation.
Phobias are extreme, irrational or “unreasonable” fears – of a situation, or person or some thing – that incapacitates someone. These are often things which most people don’t find troublesome e.g. balloons, clowns or driving a car. You know you have a phobia when you instantly panic and want to run away whenever you encounter that thing you fear (or even just see a picture of it).
- Life experience – bad experiences in the past or big life-changes such as pregnancy, bereavement, changing job, major illness, becoming unemployed or moving house.
- Personality – whether by nature or nurture some people are more prone to anxiety than others. But even someone who doesn’t naturally worry can, under enough pressure, become uncomfortably anxious.
- Circumstances – sometimes it’s obvious what is making you anxious. When the problem disappears, so does the anxiety. However, some extreme situations are so threatening that the anxiety goes on long after the event. You can feel nervous and anxious for months or years, even if you were physically unharmed. This is called post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Drugs – recreational drugs like amphetamines, LSD or ecstasy can all make you anxious – for some people, the caffeine in coffee is enough.
- Learned patterns – people develop thought patterns, strategies and responses that keep them trapped. For example, after a while, people can start to fear the symptoms of anxiety, especially feeling out of control and this sets up a vicious circle. They feel anxious because they dread feeling the symptoms of anxiety, and then they experience those symptoms because they are having anxious thoughts.
- Feeling worried all the time
- Unable to sleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Racing heartbeat
- Muscle tension and pains
- Breathing heavily
- Feeling dizzy or faint
- Indigestion, IBS, diarrhoea
If you are anxious already, the physical symptoms can make you worry they are signs of a serious illness. This can make you even more anxious.
- Sudden and overwhelming fear and sense of loss of control
- Breathing very quickly (or feeling that you have stopped breathing)
- Increased pounding heartbeat
- Feeling faint
- Jelly legged/ shaky limbs
- With a bad panic attack, you may feel that you are going mad, blacking out or dying of a heart attack.
Anxiety and panic are often accompanied by feelings of depression, losing your appetite, or seeing the future as bleak and hopeless.
- A phobia is experiencing strong feeling of anxiety in situations that frighten you. For example, if you have a phobia of dogs, you feel anxious when there are dogs around, but feel fine at other times.
- You tend to avoid the situations that make you anxious – but this makes the phobia worse as time goes on.
- Your life gets taken over by the things you have to do to avoid such situations.
- You realise that there is no real danger and may even feel silly about your phobia, but still can’t control it.
Impact on work, leisure and relationships
You may find it difficult to hold down a job, develop or maintain good relationships, or simply to enjoy leisure time. Sleep problems may further aggravate anxious feelings and reduce your ability to cope.
For some people, anxiety becomes so overwhelming that it takes over their lives. They may experience severe or very frequent panic attacks, for no apparent reason, or have a persistent, ‘free-floating’ sense of anxiety. Some may develop a phobia about going out and about, or may withdraw from contact with people, even their family and friends. Others have obsessive thoughts or repetitious behaviour, such as endlessly washing their hands.
Problems of this kind are known as panic disorders or anxiety disorders. This does not mean you have a serious mental health problem. However, it’s important to consult your GP to eliminate any possible physical cause for the symptoms before considering hypnotherapy or other forms of treatment.
Hypnotherapy, combined with learning to relax and other practical ways of helping yourself such as exercise and changes in diet, can enable you to overcome anxiety, take control, and lead a fuller life*.
*Results may vary from person to person.