When Does Anxiety Become Unhelpful?

For a second, imagine you’re a caveman. You’ve been out hunting, and you’ve killed a nice big deer that will feed your family for days. It’s getting dark, and you’re dragging it back to your cave, where you can see the warm glow of a fire inside. All around you the trees are rustling, bushes are moving, and animals are calling into the dusk. If something attacked you right now, it would be difficult to defend yourself. So you’re constantly looking around, eyes darting every which way. Your heart is beating faster, your body is full of adrenaline, ready to leap into action if you see a threat. When you hear a rustle in the bush right next to you, you reflexively thrust your spear towards the noise.

That’s what anxiety is. And while in situations like this it’s incredibly useful, being anxious too often, or for too long can become really problematic for your physical and mental health.

What is Anxiety?

In its purest, primal state, anxiety is an emotion that keeps us alive and unharmed. In the situation above, our ancestors relied on it to stop them being eaten by wild animals. By worrying about the threats they might face ahead of times, they became prepared to fight or run when necessary. It’s what helped them survive, and eventually thrive, evolving into us.

So anxiety is a biological impulse. It’s our body’s way of alerting us to danger or other threats, and preparing us to deal with them through our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. A very natural response to stress, and something that everyone reading this will have felt before at some time. Whether it’s when you know you’re in trouble with your parents as a child, or when you feel like you’re being followed down a dimly lit street at night. Of course, there are varying levels of anxiety, and we now recognise that we well as the extreme ‘fight, flight or freeze’ impulse, there are also lower levels of anxiety that often manifest as worry or fear of what’s to come. Often the anxiety we experience in our day-to-day lives isn’t as severe as it would be if our life was in danger, but it can still feel pretty frightening, especially if you suffer with an anxiety disorder.

When you’re experiencing anxiety, you might feel:

  • Your heart racing
  • Your senses sharpen
  • Your body tense up
  • Your mind race

These are all natural, physiological responses to stress, and they generally fade away once the perceived threat has passed. But in some cases they don’t, and this is when we see anxiety crossing the border from helpful, to unhelpful.

When is Anxiety Useful?

It might sound bad, but anxiety is actually helpful in some cases. Most specifically, it’s useful in situations where your safety might be in danger, and you need to be able to fight or run away from a threat. This is literally what it exists for, and it’s the reason we see people do some incredible things in times of crisis – like women lifting cars off of their children. Anxiety is meant to protect us from danger, and allow us to react faster to emergencies. For our ancestors, that means being able to run away from a wild animal faster.

In modern times, anxiety can help you quickly react to avoid an accident while driving, or prevent you from entering an unsafe space or circumstance. In fact, one study found that adolescents who suffered with anxiety had fewer accidents and accidental deaths in early adulthood than those who didn’t. Further studies show that anxiety can also help people be skilled in leadership roles, as they take careful consideration of the possibility of multiple outcomes, and it generally makes people more empathetic and understanding to the issues that other people face.

The point is, mild, occasional anxiety isn’t something to worry about, or that necessarily even needs treatment. It’s a part of normal neurological functioning. So while it has a bad name, anxiety in small amounts isn’t always a bad thing.

How do I Know if my Anxiety is Unhelpful?

However, while it can be helpful in some circumstances, anxiety can also be the worst kind of monster. It can sneak up on you unannounced, take control of your life and leave you on its own terms. Your body and mind essentially get stuck in that ‘fight, flight or freeze’ state all the time, and you never really get to reset and feel normal. Anxiety disorders affect over 8.2 million people in the UK every year, varying from generalise anxiety disorder right up to severe anxiety disorders.

When this happens, your anxiety can become overwhelming or unmanageable. It starts to impact your daily life, your ability to complete certain tasks, and your thought processes. Anxiety comes in many forms, from generalised anxiety to social anxiety, panic disorder, PTSD and even OCD (although the last 2 have been reclassified to fit under other disorders as well). But how can you tell if your anxiety is normal, or if its unhelpful? Here are a few easy things to look out for.

Normal anxiety:

  • Is related to a specific situation or problem.
  • Lasts only as long as the situation or problem.
  • Is proportional to the situation or problem.
  • Is a realistic response to a realistic problem or situation.

Unhelpful anxiety:

  • May come on unexpectedly, for seemingly no reason.
  • The anxiety response to a situation might be much stronger than is warranted.
  • Is unrealistic – like fear of a situation that will likely never happen.
  • May last for a long time, even when the situation or problem has been resolved.
  • May feel impossible to control or manage.
  • Might cause you to avoid situations or things that trigger anxiety symptoms.

Unhelpful anxiety doesn’t necessarily have to be caused by something – it can affect you seemingly at random. If you’re experiencing unhelpful anxiety, you may feel like:

  • Like you can’t breathe
  • Like your heart is beating out of your chest
  • Like the world is leaving you behind
  • Like you’re running in place
  • Like you’re dying
  • Like your head is in a fog
  • Like you can’t sleep or eat properly
  • Like you have a sense of impending doom
  • Like you’re physically shaking (because you might be)
  • Like you’re afraid
  • Like there’s a pain deep inside
  • Like you’re so tense you might break into pieces
  • Like you just want to be alone
  • Like you’re lonely
  • Like you’re not good enough
  • Like you have sensory overload
  • Like you are overwhelmed
  • Like you’re on edge

Luckily, you don’t have to stay that way forever. Anxiety can be treated, and you can recover from any anxiety disorder. Treatment and support options are available to you, and you can access them in any way you choose. From apps that will help you with racing thoughts and guide you through techniques to manage your anxiety, through to counsellors and even NHS treatments with medications and therapy. If you feel like you are  struggling with anxiety and want some support, we would be happy to help. Just get in touch with the team today and book your free consultation with one of our experts.