What is Anxiety? 2 Metaphors that explain it all (almost)

I often see clients with anxiety disorders, because is one of the most common mental health issue and that anxiety disorders and addiction often present together. Today I figured it’s worth talking about anxiety because it is very treatable and that is one of my great pleasures to treat in therapy. This includes those who have anxiety about being judged or evaluated (social anxiety), those that have excessive concerns about their health (health anxiety or hypochondria), those who experience anxiety attacks and panic attacks and those who can’t stop worrying or ruminating (generalised anxiety). Addiction can be an issue because you might have used substances, gaming, gambling or porn to manage some of your distress from the anxiety (“Why do I have this as a problem”) or anxiety itself (“I don’t want to feel my anxiety”). Do this often enough, the habit becomes problematic and the anxiety gets worse.

Now it’s worth explaining what Anxiety is.

Anxiety is your fear system coming online to tell you that there is a threat in the environment or a threat to you. So if we were in the wild, went to fetch water and you were attacked by a lion. Well.. the next time you go to fetch water, you’re going to experience anxiety. You’re concerned / fearful /scared/ anxious that you may get attacked. And rightfully so! you were attacked by lion the last time you last fetched water. For most people the physical symptoms can include tightness in your chest, pounding heart beats, sweaty palms, tension, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, uneasiness and dizziness. You might have anxiety-related thoughts “this is unbearable”, “what if others can see that i’m anxious”, “I’m worried that the worst possible thing might happen”, “I’m fearful of <insert thing> or of <insert event> happening”.

Now when the fear system comes online, it can motivate us to do 1 of 3 things. We typically understand this as the fight, flight or freeze responses to fear. Clinically speaking, those who present with anxiety disorders tend to have chosen the responses flight or freeze as a default response. The problem is, the more we avoid and flee from things that make us fearful,it often gets worse.

  1. We tend to not solve the problem that created the fearful event and we often find that the problem escalates (its larger because we don’t attempt to solve the problem).
  2. Now you might not know is that your fear will also escalate too. And this is because your face your fear system can’t calibrate to your experiences of the event. The avoidance of fear experiences makes it impossible for the fear system to calibrate itself down (sounds like a catch-22).

The first step to controlling anxiety is to understand it fully. So I use a few examples to illustrate this concept to my clients 

Story 1: Stop being hunted and become a hunter

Imagine we were both in the African Savanna and we had to fetch water. Just like the previous example, there were a few times where you went to fetch water and you’ve been attacked.

You’re going to be really anxious, you going to be concerned in general about when you’re going to be attacked. Now this is a really tough feeling have, because long-term non-specific anxiety impacts on your health and your psychological well-being. Before long you might want to stop going to fetch water, and your thoughts may change to “I didn’t want to get water anyway”. (this is important because it helps explain a large component Of Failure to Launch).

Constantly avoiding lions sounds like a good idea but comes at a cost. You have to deal with the anxiety everyday.

It’s  exhausting on your body and on your mind.

Now what if I could offer offer you a deal.

What if I could tap into your predatory systems of fear and what if we could re-harness that fear for you into something productive and something more comfortable to deal with. So imagine one day you’re sick of being attacked by lions and you suddenly decide to hunt the lion. Then something magical happens, a switch flips in your mind. You switch to a goal oriented mind and you become a problem Solver.  You start to think about how you would even approach this problem. Your thoughts may change towards “Do I know how to make a spear? Do I know where lions hang out? Are you going to need to recruit friends to help you hunt this lion?

Now this mindset is very powerful because the risk to you still the same to you, but now you’re hoping to run into that lion.  Now you’re motivated to approach the very fear that you tried to avoid. Most people once they adopt this mindset start to deal with anxiety much more effectively. Now, I try to encourage this mindset in the therapy room because you’re going to need it to do the tasks and the exercises that are required to smash or dial down your anxiety.


Story 2. Are you still afraid of the dark?

Now it’s very likely your fear system works very well in another context. For example most people who have come to my clinic would have overcame a fear in their lifetime. The most common example I use is the “fear of the dark”.  Your natural exposure to 365 nights of the year may have given you the experience required for your fear system to calibrate itself to manageable levels.

Perhaps as a child, your fear of the dark was related to unknown threats in the darkness. It’s the fear of the unknown. And rightly so, your fear system warns you (as a young mammal) that there are potential predators lurking in dark that might hurt you. However, as we gain more more experiences of dark events we soon learn that there are no monsters and no predators. Your fear system learns and calibrates to that new information.

It’s important to realise that we can mess up that calibration of the fear system. Imagine, the most fearful time of the dark, you ran to your mum and dad. Concerned at your distress, your parents decide to give you a special helmet, and every time you wear the helmet: nothing happens and you feel safe. Your fear system quickly learns that the helmet is what keeps you safe. What happens when you don’t have your helmet?  The fear comes back again. It makes total sense if you believed that your helmet kept you safe and without it the threat is still very real. Psychologists call this a “safety behaviour” and makes the fear and anxiety much worse. It often gets in the way of improvement. For adults with fear of flying, this might be a substance (valium, alcohol etc) for social anxiety (this could be your phone or “dutch courage”. The list goes on.

If you look at the story there are three intuitive ways we can deal with this.

1.  We can examine your beliefs about the dark and restructure them, so for example we can examine why you believe that there are monsters in there and try to logically reason the way out. Now that’s not going to eliminate all of your anxiety but it does help.

2. The second is, you have to face your fear either incrementally (I call this option a “fear mountain”) or through launching yourself into it (I call this option a “fear attack”).

3.The third is understanding why you have this particular anxiety in the first place and how it isn’t bad thing, in fact we can harness it to motivate behaviour.

In short, these two metaphors demonstrate a powerful framework that I would use to treat the majority of anxiety disorders. But this all sounds theoretical, in the next few weeks I’ll show you how you can use this understanding and smash/dial your specific anxiety to failure, panic, health and much more. Stay tuned.

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Luke Vu is a registered psychologist practising in Maroubra Junction, supporting those who struggle with substance and online addictions. Call me or send me a message today.