Words, words, words...
Some of the words used when people talk about their feelings can be very ambiguous and confusing: Pressure and Stress... Fear and Anxiety...
Pressure and Stress.
We all seem to need a certain degree of pressure to "get us going", to motivate us into doing things (eg, studying) that we don't really feel like doing but which we know are good for us or which we know we need to do. Without some pressure in our lives, we would probably become very dull and listless......
But when the pressure becomes unmanageable -- a particular task appears impossible, or we have simply too much on our plate -- then we can say that the pressure is turning into stress.
In other words, we need pressure to function at our best, but too much pressure can become stress, and if we don't do something about it then that stress will make us ill. Put simply:-
Pressure we feel comfortable with = Good.
Pressure we feel we can't handle = Stress.
Stress which we can't or don't do something about = Anxiety = Bad.
Fear and Anxiety.
Fear and its "close relation", Anxiety, are perfectly normal human feelings. They are not a sign that you are "going insane"! We all experience them when faced with situations we find threatening or difficult. Humans have felt fear and anxiety about all sorts of things since the dawn of time.
Science tells us that the reaction of fear, to some danger or other, is "hard-wired" into us: the prehistoric caveman suddenly confronted by a savage animal, seemingly intent on eating him, felt fear (of course!). He didn't need to think about it: the fear was suddenly "there" in his mind, designed as an excellent survival mechanism. Without that fear, chances are he'd have made a nice meal for that animal.
And how does that feeling of fear help him in his moment of danger -- and you and me too, his descendants, when we are faced with danger? The main effects, in the body and mind, of the emotion of fear are:-
In The Mind
-- the fear makes us more alert, tightening up our concentration, ignoring other thoughts to focus on the "now". Example: the caveman/hunter stops thinking about the dinner and warm fire awaiting him back in his cave -- if he doesn't concentrate on that dangerous-looking animal, he may never make it back to that cave!
-- the fear may also help us to avoid dangerous situations. Example: if he is out hunting and hears growling and snarling coming from some bushes ahead, his fear can warn him to stay well clear!
In The Body
The parts of our brain that produce the feeling of fear also trigger the sudden release of hormones into our blood stream, chiefly adrenaline. There are many different effects on our bodies from these hormones (which we'll look at later in more detail under Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
) but the main ones are:-
-- faster breathing, to get more oxygen to supply our muscles and brain
-- expansion of the blood vessels leading to our muscles
-- increased supply of sugars and other nutrients into the bloodstream for use by those muscles
-- increased heart rate to get the oxygen and nutrients to where they're needed as fast as possible
(Click here for a diagram showing your body responses under stress.)
God, Nature or Evolution -- however you wish to look at it -- has designed our brain chemistry and bodies to react in these ways because they were, and still are, the best ways for us to survive any kind of danger. A common name for these reactions is the "Fight or Flight Response". They are designed to help us do basically one of two things:-
Fight and attack the danger!!!
Flee, run away, as fast as we can!!!
Thousands upon thousands of years have passed since our ancestors lived in caves, or were daily faced with the danger of being eaten by some wild animal, etc. But even though most of us live very different lives now -- safer, warmer, healthier -- and the things that usually make us afraid nowadays are often far more complicated than the dangers faced by prehistoric man, nonetheless our brains and our bodies still react to any fear in exactly the same simple fashion: chemically priming us to do one of two things -- Fight or Flight.
But what happens inside our minds, inside our bodies, when we are faced with some modern, more complex, fear or stress and we find that either we can't fight it or we can't run away from it?
Eg: you go to school every day and have to face some bully there? They're too big to fight and there isn't really any way you can run away from them either.
Here we have a classic situation where our "hard-wired" neuro-chemical responses are not much use to us, but still they fire off in our brains and flood our bodies with hormones designed to help us leap into physical action. But there is no physical action we can take...... Situation not resolved. Problem not sorted!
Pressure we can't manage...... Stress. The pot begins to boil.......
The Stress we can't deal with...... Anxiety. The pot begins to boil over......
And, hey, you know what? It gets worse!!!
One single episode of acute anxiety or a panic attack can make us feel very ill. Repeated and ongoing episodes day after day, week after week, can not just make us feel ill but actually make us ill, both physically and mentally.
Longer-term anxiety can affect our immune systems, leaving us more prone to common sicknesses like colds and 'flu, to headaches and migraines, dizziness and nausea......
Longer-term anxiety can affect our minds too, making us more and more prone to Anxiety about all sorts of things. As time passes, Anxiety can become our "default response" to almost anything that we don't feel comfortable with or which causes us some stress. The Anxiety can become increasingly diffuse and non-specific.
Quite often, we can't even tell what it is at any given time that's making us anxious and panicky: the "causes" either being buried deep in our unconscious mind, or else our panic responses are firing all on their own, like a faulty fire alarm. This is often what gives us that "I'm going mad!" feeling......
And of course longer-term Anxiety will often lead to Depression, and even some of the other disorders you will read about on this site.
Because life for all of us -- young children, teenagers, adults -- is full of pressures, full of stress, absolutely chock-a-block full of potentially anxiety-causing experiences, we can all risk ending up making ourselves feel both physically and mentally ill.
If we don't learn to do something about it.
But the good news is: there are many, many things we can in fact do to help ourselves (and others) with Anxiety!
We'll talk about those later on, under Help and Treatment, and How to Get It.