Anxiety is the product of a biological system that has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to protect us during times of danger. This system is enormously valuable: it shifts into high gear if a threat is suspected, warning us to pay attention. The brain sends neurochemical messages to the body’s nervous system, which activate the physiological changes that prepare the body to escape from peril. For example, anxiety causes rapid, shallow breathing, an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and changes to the digestive system. Some people also experience shakiness, hot or cold flashes, sweating, tingling, or numbness as the blood rushes from the head to the extremities, preparing the body for fight-or-flight. When you experience anxiety, these physiological changes will allow you to run faster, punch harder, jump higher, and so forth, helping you to respond to extreme physical dangers. Humans would likely not have survived as a species without such an effective means of orienting to – and escaping from – potential threats.
Anxiety can be maladaptive when triggered by non-physical threats
As adaptive as anxiety is for us in terms of preventing physical endangerment, it can – and often does — become dysregulated. When this happens, our bodies raise powerful neurochemical alarm bells that scream danger when in fact there is none or only a minimal risk. When our anxiety systems become miscalibrated in this way, it is not only physiologically exhausting and mentally distressing, it is often extremely maladaptive in terms of limiting our effectiveness in staving off modern day types of “threats.” When our everyday lives are relatively safe, these physiological changes can hinder our ability to function well. For example, anxiety can get in the way of speaking clearly during a job interview or a presentation at work, inhibit the ability to remember pertinent pieces of information while taking a test, and lead us to devote far more attention than is warranted to implausible or unlikely dangers, leaving little attention and energy left for what really matters in life.
When anxiety interferes with your ability to cope with daily stresses, this maladaptive system can be re-wired effectively through treatment.
Anxiety systems can become dysregulated for several reasons, such as experiencing trauma, early upbringing, and genetics. Once our anxiety is conditioned to occur in response to non-physical threats, it usually takes conscious effort and hard work to recalibrate this emotional system. What this entails is gaining insight about the nature of one’s anxiety and developing new coping mechanisms for dealing with it. Therapy is often an effective way of learning how to do this. A therapist can help you to achieve insight about how your anxiety functions physiologically and psychologically, and can help you learn effective strategies for down-regulating an overactive system. Your therapist can help you train yourself to distinguish between realistic versus improbable threats, even when a miscalibrated anxiety system is causing you to feel as though you are in imminent danger. As intense as anxiety feels, it is an understandable and important biological system, which you can learn to re-wire to become adaptive within the context of your life.
Shona Tritt is a registered Clinical Psychologist and Faculty Lecturer at the University of Toronto Scarborough who has worked at The Clinic on Dupont since 2016.