When clients seek help with anxiety, they sometimes think that if they can just learn how, they would never feel anxious.
But that wouldn’t be a good thing. Feelings of anxiety arise because our fight-flight system detects danger. Our heart rate increases, our stomachs churn and we go sweaty. We might feel light-headed, irritable or begin to tremble. These symptoms crop up because our nervous system is preparing us to fight or flee in the face of danger.
If we were to switch off the fight-flight system forever, we might not recognise a dangerous situation until it was too late. So even the calmest amongst us can rest assured that if we are in genuine and immediate danger, our inner protection system will kick in.
It’s all a question of degree. If a vicious dog is running towards you, it’s entirely appropriate that your fight-flight system would kick in. You would absolutely want it to. But it’s not appropriate if fight-flight kicks in when you merely want to leave the house, speak up at a meeting or meet a friend for coffee.
So, our aim in therapy is to help you manage your fight-flight system so that you recognise the inner warning bell and respond appropriately. And that means recognising that sometimes we can mistake ‘innocent’ signals as anxiety.
A classic example is hunger. If your blood sugar levels drop you may feel like your stomach is churning, you may feel light-headed, shaky and irritable. These symptoms are very similar to anxiety.
In fact, the same neural networks that trigger hunger sensations also trigger the stress response, so it’s no wonder we can mistake hunger for fear.
Of course, hunger is easily remedied by having something to eat. But if you don’t recognise that your symptoms are caused by hunger, you can begin to convince yourself that you’re in danger, your anxiety increases and then you end up in a self-fulfilling loop.
So the next time you start to feel a bit on edge, do a self-diagnostic to work out whether it’s just that you need to eat something.
As the Snickers commercial says, ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’.