Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.
A snake on a hiking trail, or a gun in your face, or any direct threat to your well-being will trigger your fight-or-flight response. When this happens, the sympathetic nervous system releases a cascade of hormones, in particular adrenaline and epinephrine. These stress hormones very rapidly cause a series of changes in your body, including increased blood pressure and heart rate, slowed digestion, tunnel vision, shaking, and increased muscle tension. All this prepares you for a full-throttle physical response to the danger. These changes come together in an instant, to create a singular focus on survival.
When anxiety is appropriate—as in the case of the snake or the gun—this physiological response is normal, because it prepares us to respond to the potential threat. Even when the perceived danger isn’t life-threatening, anxiety can still be helpful. For example, a student might need to achieve a certain score on a test to be accepted to medical school. His anxiety motivates him to study, take a test prep course, and spend considerable time on practice exams. The fear of failure can energize and focus him for the hard work ahead. Or a person driving on a busy highway suddenly experiences increased heart rate and blood flow when she sees someone screech to a halt in the lane next to her. The immediate increase in heart rate prepares her for action, so she can steer toward safety if she needs to. These kinds of anxiety responses may not be saving our lives, but they are adaptive and keep things running smoothly.
Anxiety becomes a problem when a person’s fight-or-flight response is triggered by cues that are not threatening at all—either physically or otherwise. For instance, the person who obsessively worries about their health even though tests have ruled out a medical condition. This person is unable to be present with the people around them because they’re constantly preoccupied with what might or might not be going on medically. Or take the person who fears using public bathrooms and eventually avoids all business travel to not have to confront this fear. If travel is necessary for work, this person’s career will be limited or ended by what is, at its core, an irrational fear.
Anxiety isn’t just a problem of overreacting to things happening around us; our anxiety response can be triggered by things that exist only in our minds. This happens when we worry about and anticipate what-ifs and worst-case scenarios, which may never come to be. Consider the person who feels insecure and frets relentlessly about the possibility of doing something wrong socially and being embarrassed. Eventually, their social world becomes smaller and smaller. They may no longer go to social events and may even stop opening up to people they’ve known for a long time.
If you’re holding this book, you likely struggle with anxiety in some way. But you may still have questions about whether or not anxiety is a problem for you, or about how serious a problem it is. There are some general ways to assess if you’re dealing with problematic anxiety or just the normal fears that arise in life from time to time.
Anxiety is adaptive when it comes in response to an in-the-moment fear of risk in your immediate environment. Anxiety is maladaptive when it becomes a chronic state of tension, worry, and/or avoidance behavior, all of which negatively impacts your life and functioning.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 40 million people suffer from anxiety disorders, which are the most common issues that bring people to therapy. Thanks to decades of research, we know a good deal about how to treat them. In fact, anxiety symptoms of all kinds are very responsive to treatment, offering anxiety sufferers long-term relief. This book gives you access to some of the same tools I use in my practice to help people struggling with all types of anxiety symptoms.
The techniques in this book are taken mainly from three scientifically tested and proven-effective interventions. As a clinician and also as someone who struggles with anxiety, I have personally found relief using these specific approaches, and so have my clients. I believe you will, too.
What research and experience have shown me is that a combined approach of examining your thoughts, accepting (not necessarily liking!) anxiety as a part of your life, and learning to be more present in the here and now are the essential keys to reducing anxiety and living a more peaceful life.
Having anxious thoughts becomes a self-perpetuating cycle that creates more anxiety. We’ll use cognitive behavioral therapy to examine and change your thoughts. Strategies from acceptance and commitment therapy will help you behave in a manner, and ultimately live a life, that matches your core values and desires, regardless of your mood or anxious symptoms.
As you grow to accept that we all suffer sometimes, you’ll find there’s more room for you to separate from your battle with anxiety. Through practicing the mindfulness strategies throughout each chapter, you’ll be more easily able to bring your thoughts back to the here and now. As you learn ways to observe and distance yourself, even if only slightly, from your anxious experiences, you will be less overwhelmed and more able to experience joy and pleasure in your life now.
Struggling with anxiety can be so demoralizing that we give up. Similar to traits like height or eye color, people who struggle with anxiety can start to believe that they were born anxious and there’s nothing they can do about it. However, the reality is that changes in our environment, along with learning new skills, have a significant impact on anxiety and can lessen anxiety symptoms over time.
Neuroscience shows that neuronal growth and structural changes in the brain occur as the result of new experiences, and also as the result of how you think and behave. A real-life example of this would be if you decided you wanted to change your habit of snacking right before bed. Perhaps you’ve eaten chips or crackers before bed for years, and you decide to substitute sliced vegetables. The plan is solid and you’re ready to go. However, you’re unlikely to be successful in changing this habit if you substitute your chips for veggies only once a week or every couple of weeks. On the other hand, if you consistently eat sliced veggies every night of the week, or even just most nights of the week, your brain will adjust and the new habit will take hold.
When you repeat a new behavior enough (which continually fires the same neuronal pathway), the new experience becomes a part of your brain’s system on a chemical level. This phenomenon is called neuronal plasticity, or sometimes brain plasticity.