Anxiety and panic attacks are among the most common reasons people are referred to psychologists. An initial part of learning how to cope with anxiety is understanding what it actually is.
Looking at our modern world, it can be surprising to realize that the human brain still functions about the same as it did 40,000 years ago when we survived by hunting and gathering. Dangers were everywhere for early humans, including predators, exposure to the elements and unforgiving landscapes. Early ancestors who could react quickly survived to pass on their genes to future generations and we continue to benefit from that same fight-flight reaction system today.
Without any need for conscious thought, the brain sends messages to fight or flee to the muscles and organs whenever it senses a threat. Instantly, our attention goes directly to that threat and we feel unpleasant sensations that are impossible to ignore. We act, on instinct, and when the threat is over the body returns to rest and the entire system settles.
Part of the cure for anxiety comes from understanding that the body takes a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach when it comes to self-preservation. It doesn’t matter whether threats are real (eg, someone running towards you in a dark alley) or imagined (eg, a fleeting thought that an upcoming presentation might turn out badly). It reacts the same way regardless, instantly mobilizing all of the body’s resources just in case.
Anxiety is often less frightening when we realize that it’s just the body’s way of keeping itself safe.