With everything going on in the world, it's not hard to understand why so many of us are feeling anxious.
In many ways, anxiety can be a useful tool when facing a stressful or threatening situation. After all, anxiety forms part of the fight and flight mechanism that enables us to survive in life-threatening conditions. When exposed to danger, a surge in adrenaline causes our pulse to raise, breathing to quicken and pupils to dilate, allowing us to better fight off a predator or flee.
But when the threat isn't imminent and so much of it is out of our control, are these feelings of anxiety any use, and is it possible to channel them into something productive? And more generally, how do we know when anxiety is good, and when it is bad?
According to experts, it’s all in how we perceive and react to certain situations. "There is a difference between healthy anxiety and unhealthy anxiety, which is determined by our cognitive and behavioural responses," explains Dr Monica Cain, Chartered Counselling Psychologist at Balance Psychology. Healthy anxiety is a physical response to a threatening or demanding situation, like an exam or an approaching attacker, and can in extreme cases keep us alive. Unhealthy anxiety, on the other hand, is disproportionate to the situation.
An example of unhealthy anxiety could be spiralling and illogical thoughts when faced with a non-threatening situation. For example, becoming distressed when someone coughs, even if that person is far away and all the necessary precautions are being taken. Thoughts like, “that person must have Covid-19, which means I'll catch it, too. Then I'm going to give it to my family. I won't be able to work,” swirl around your head, leading to the next phase of the anxiety rollercoaster: contingency planning. E.g., “I’ll be unable to leave the house for weeks and I have no food so I'll have to get an online shop booked or I'll starve. And I'll miss that important Zoom meeting, which means I'll lose that promotion I was hoping for."
This is followed by fatalism, “I’ll probably get fired because I didn’t attend the meeting and I won’t be able to afford to live in my home anymore so I would have to move out.” And so on, when in fact, that person coughing 50 metres away isn't a problem or a threat at all.
That's just one example, but unhealthy anxiety can be in response to any situation that doesn't pose a meaningful or significant threat at that moment to justify a rush of anxiety and adrenaline.
Whether it’s over-analysing social situations or catastrophising a bad decision, unhealthy anxiety can mean that you're not actually present in the moment for a huge chunk of the day - instead, you're lost in thought playing out the worst-case scenario future life.
Ultimately, unhealthy anxiety can culminate in a panic attack, which can be utterly debilitating. “Acute anxiety symptoms can include an increased heart rate and shakiness,” explains Bupa Health Clinics’ Medical Director, Dr Arun Thiyagarajan. Panic attacks can be physically exhausting and also self-perpetuating – you begin to panic about having a panic attack, which in turn, makes them more likely to occur.
This understanding of unhealthy anxiety has led many mental health researchers to advocate practices like mindfulness. Before you roll your eyes, mindfulness doesn’t have to mean connecting with how each toe is feeling or appreciating the movement of the air sifting through your nostrils. “Mindfulness encourages you to be more aware of what’s happening without feeling overwhelmed by it. Mindfulness won’t remove the problem, it might not change a situation but it’s a tool that can help you to change your response to it and that’s the key,” says Dr Thiyagarajan.
Plus, it can be even more effective when combined with established therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which addresses the way you think and act. “Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is effective as an ongoing relapse prevention tool that helps us remain aware our patterns of thoughts and behaviours as we go about daily life,” says Dr Cain. “This can help us detect earlier the initial signs and signals that may indicate a difficulty emerging. The earlier the detection, the better able we are at responding healthily.”
There are also new at-home devices that can help, like the Flow Neuroscience wearable headset which uses transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS) combined with virtual behavioural therapy to treat depression and, as well as antidepressants that can help to reduce the abilities of anxiety-causing chemicals within the brain.
As well as seeking treatment, it's also important to keep talking about your feelings with friends and family to avoid feelings of detachment and isolation - chances are, more people than you think are experiencing the very same thoughts as you are.
This article was originally published on Glamour UK.