Source of Anxiety
Anxiety is, in many circumstances, a normal response that occurs when a person perceives a possible threat.
Its function is to protect us from such a threat by making us avoid the situation, run away or fight.
Thus, on the one hand, symptoms related to anxiety have an adaptive function. On the other hand, since we live in an environment very different from that of our prehistoric ancestors, it is possible that the symptoms that were adaptive then may not be so adaptive today.
Some authors affirm that evolution has favored the genes of anxiety, since in an ambiguous situation there can be more chances of surviving if you scare and retreat for no reason, than if you don’t scare or retreat when you have a reason.
If we add to this our own thinking and a tendency to exaggerate the importance of certain events, then it is hardly surprising that anxiety disorders are so common.
Symptoms of anxiety and their relationship to thinking
When a person feels anxiety, what stands out most from that experience is that feeling of intense distress-fear, terror, anguish-and the physiological symptoms they are experiencing.
For this reason, these symptoms are often given greater importance and thought is not taken very much into account. However, thought plays a central role in the onset of anxiety.
Although people do not usually take their thoughts very seriously and in many cases are not even aware of what is going on in their minds, when we ask them, we see that their heads are full of images and threatening thoughts.
Ignacio is a 40-year-old man who runs through the countryside, in a mountainous and complicated area.
He has run there more times, and sometimes he has felt weakness, tiredness, trembling legs, shortness of breath, and even slight dizziness.
He has ignored these symptoms because he has interpreted them as a normal consequence of physical exercise and, therefore, something non-threatening.
This time, however, the circumstances are different. Her 37-year-old brother recently had a heart attack.
When Ignacio runs around the countryside and begins to feel those same symptoms he’s felt before, he doesn’t interpret them in the same way, but suddenly a threatening thought appears in his mind that has hovered around his head since his brother had the heart attack: “What if it happens to me?” Suddenly, what used to be normal reactions to physical exercise for him become terrible threats: the possibility of having a heart attack. Images that terrify him quickly form in his mind.
He sees himself lying on the ground in the middle of the field without anyone being able to help him, and he is no longer afraid not only to have a heart attack but also to die.
All those thoughts and mental images make him feel increasingly anxious until he ends up having a panic attack.
The future danger
The main feature of anxiety is that it is a response that occurs as a consequence of the perception of a future threat.
That is to say, the person considers that something terrible can happen or is about to happen, that there is a threat that can cause physical or emotional harm.
The physiological sensations that the runner of the previous example had implied for him the threat of having a heart attack and the possibility of dying.
To speak in public can mean for a person to expose himself to do badly in front of everyone and to look like an idiot, to be the object of ridicule, contempt or rejection.
In our prehistoric past, the group’s contempt could lead to expulsion, and that was almost a death sentence.
For this reason, it is not uncommon for social anxiety to be so common today. People with higher levels of social anxiety were more likely to survive.
Therefore, anxiety serves to warn the person of the existence of a possible physical danger or social sanction.
In fact, a person may feel anxious just to think or imagine himself in that feared situation, because of all the horrible things that he thinks could happen to him.
Normal anxiety versus pathological anxiety
If the dreaded situation you imagine consists of walking on a wire at a height of 50 meters, the anxiety response seems perfectly normal.
If you try, your legs may become paralyzed, you may not be able to move forward, or you may become dizzy.
These symptoms force you to immediately move away from a potentially dangerous situation.
But the same reaction can appear when you see a harmless dog, a butterfly, or when you imagine asking your boss for a promotion.
The answer in all these situations is the same: you evaluate the situation (ask for a climb, walk a wire 50 meters, etc.) and interpret it as threatening; that is, you consider that something very bad can happen to you if you go ahead. This interpretation may or may not be realistic.
When it is not realistic, but exaggerated and prevents you from achieving things that you want and that are positive for you, then we are in the presence of an anxiety disorder that can be effectively treated through cognitive or cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy.
Thus, in anxiety disorders there is no real danger, but an exaggerated or erroneous interpretation of a given situation and of the danger that planet.
Therefore, the anxiety response is inappropriate and, instead of protecting you from real danger, it prevents you from acting effectively.