Survival Strategies Part 5:
Some professionals interchange the terms 'anxiety' and 'panic.' When they talk about an anxiety attack or a panic attack, they mean the same thing. However, there is a difference between panic and anxiety. Anxiety can be a permanent state; some people have a high degree of anxiety all the time, others only feel anxious occasionally.
I have never met a person who lives in a permanent state of panic but I have met many people who live with a permanent state of high anxiety. I have known people with a high level of anxiety to respond perfectly rationally with good, accurate decision–making and with a perfectly healthy fight or flight response when faced with a threat. I have also seen people, whom I always thought of as calm and even laid–back, panic when facing a threat. Their decision–making ability was decidedly impaired and their behaviour became irrational. Now you know why this can happen, perhaps you will be more tolerant of people who panic when they are threatened or who seem to be permanently over–anxious.
Irrational and rational anxiety
I subscribe to the understanding that anxiety has two dimensions: irrational anxiety and rational (existential, if you like) anxiety. If a person's existence is genuinely threatened, they have a right to be worried, nervous, anxious or even downright frightened about it. A seemingly irrational state of anxiety (one where there appears to be no apparent cause for the person to be anxious about anything) is almost always rooted in their past.
Frequently, the cause of irrational anxiety was an over–anxious parent and lack of real love and confirmation as a child. They learned to be anxious, nervous, worried and frightened by everything and everybody because their childhood role model was anxious about everything. They had no true personal identity as a child, but always had to be what their parents wanted them to be. As a result of this, these anxiety sufferers often adopt a role in life geared towards constantly seeking acceptance by others, becoming anxious to please. Their whole lives are governed by playing out this role. In reality, they are seeking the love and acceptance they never received from their parents and they are missing their true identity because they were never allowed to develop one. When any event in their lives brings their life–role into question, their anxiety level rises, sometimes to the level of an anxiety attack.
A constant state of anxiety is a dreadful thing to bear. In a survival situation, if you suffer this way, there is no way of knowing if your state of anxiety will be a liability or an asset. It all depends upon whether or not you maintain your normal level of high anxiety or it goes off the scale and becomes incapacitating. Heightened anxiety can also lead to heightened awareness and this boost to the senses can be an advantage in a survival situation as long as a person's perception of the situation remains rational.
If you normally have a low to moderate (i.e. acceptable to the individual) level of anxiety, in a survival situation your fight/flight response is already heightened. Your hind–brain is constantly and efficiently scanning for threats because you are in this heightened state. As long as the anxious person does not perceive threats that do not really exist (again, this depends upon one's personal psychology) and they can focus in on the real existential threat of the situation, an anxiety sufferer may have a slightly better chance of surviving than a person who is overly calm. The overly calm person may not see a potential threat until the threat is a real one and they have a late reaction to it. To recap, in a survival situation, we have looked at the initial shock of the event, the normal survival mechanisms and the way people are affected by their body chemistry and psychologically. We know that there may be a degree of traumatization during and after surviving a dire situation.
When someone is feeling anxious, they experience physical feelings and worrying thoughts. This can make it hard to do even simple tasks and so they begin to avoid things. Often the person does not understand why they feel the way they do. When they are relaxed they can see that their worries were over the top, but when the anxiety builds up they feel overwhelmed once again.
In a survival situation, anxiety can build up rapidly and become quite demotivating and debilitating. Of all the psychological problems a person can experience when their survival is threatened, anxiety is one of the most insidious and, although it is not an illness and one cannot die from anxiety, the lack of motivation and narrowing of the sufferer's world makes it very dangerous and potentially life–threatening.
The effects of anxiety on how we think, what we do and how our body reacts
How we think
When anxiety is out of control, people describe having thoughts such as:
What we do
People suffering from anxiety often avoid things, e.g. going out alone or chatting to people. In a group of survivors, the anxiety sufferer will become withdrawn and not take part in any group activity, or appear very nervous about taking part. They usually do this because they think that they will cope badly, e.g. they will panic or make a fool of themselves. By avoiding the situation, they feel better. But in the long–term, avoidance always makes the problem worse. This is because more and more anxiety gets associated with the avoided thing and so it gets harder and harder to face up to it. In a survival situation this may manifest itself in:
Not wanting to get up in the morning, preferring to lie where you are rather than, for example, procuring supplies.
In not maintaining personal hygiene.
Not bothering to eat or maintain an adequate level of hydration.
In fact, any routine activity can become difficult. Being anxious over finding sufficient food for the day can turn into the thought that is not worth trying to find food. In this extreme case, not bothering to source food becomes more comfortable than facing the anxiety brought on by having to make the effort with the associated worry that all attempts may be in vain.
Anxiety in the normal environment can also make people feel that they must do certain things e.g. they might start repeatedly checking to see if doors are locked or electrical plugs are pulled out, or they might clean the house much more then it needs. In a survival situation, this can manifest itself in constantly checking equipment, searching pockets to see that belongings are still there and a few minutes later having to do it all over again. (How many times at the airport have you checked you still have your passport in your pocket?) Anxiety can also lead to other behaviours such as talking too fast or mixing up words. Being aware of these behaviours can also make you feel more anxious. This is known psychologically as having angst for angst. The fear of getting anxious makes the person more anxious, the worry about anxiety brings it on.
How our bodies react
There are many physical symptoms of anxiety (see the picture below). The symptoms are very unpleasant and sometimes seem to appear for no reason. People worry that they have a serious physical problem or that something terrible is going to happen. It is important to know that these symptoms are not dangerous and will not do any damage to you even if they are severe. If you look at the picture below, you may recognise some of these feelings. Most people will feel only some of these, not all of them. A very common and distressing one is experiencing breathing problems. This is because the anxiety sufferer breaths too fast and takes in too much oxygen, leading to mild to severe hyperventilation. In this state the over intake of oxygen actually makes the person feel they can't breathe. This can be overcome by breathing into a paper bag to increase the carbon dioxide in the blood, or by controlling the breathing by breathing in for three seconds, holding the breath for three seconds and then exhaling for three seconds. Repeating this for fifteen to thirty minutes a day can help overcome the problem. If you feel you are losing your breath, try this breathing technique. If you are very visual, imaging you are breathing in red and exhaling blue. It works for many people.
What causes anxiety?
Some people have had difficult experiences earlier in life and this can make them more likely to get anxious. Other people have always been "the worrying type". For many people, anxiety problems begin following a time of stress. The stress of a survival situation can cause physical changes in the body and make it more likely that anxiety begins.
Changes in our body
When you are stressed, adrenalin gets released into the body. This is a chemical messenger which makes the body ready to run away or fight what it thinks is dangerous or threatening – the fight/flight response. When we feel we are in danger, adrenalin is released, the feelings in our body change and can make us feel horrible.
What keeps anxiety going? You may first notice anxiety in either thoughts, behaviour or body. But your anxiety reaction in each area feeds into the others. This keeps the body "on alert" and creates a vicious circle that keeps the anxiety levels up.