Once upon a time, through the complex process of evolution, human beings developed into highly functioning and thriving individuals and operational societies. Thanks to our survival instinct, people learned to effectively scan the environment for threats to their safety. Our ancestors would constantly check their surroundings for dangers or problems to fix. Back then, it was a matter of life and death to detect a bear lurking in the shadows or to find a solution to ineffective food storage systems. Consequently, our brains developed a negativity bias, habitually seeking out negative stimuli. Such primitive responses have accompanied us to the present day and often do much harm.
The anxiety response has been millions of years in the making. Today, it is not the bear that threatens our survival but our brain’s interpretation of being stuck in traffic, family conflict or looming deadlines. Our brain does not have the ability to comprehend that being late to an interview isn’t actually life-threatening. This false perception gives rise to the automatic fight or flight response that often includes dizziness, heart pounding, tension, jaw clenching, dry mouth, gastrointestinal issues, tightness in the throat and chest or difficulty breathing. A prolonged or chronic experience of the fight or flight reaction can have serious health and mental health consequences. Our bodies simply cannot sustain this tension long-term. Therefore, it is essential to learn ways of engaging the body’s natural relaxation response, which originates in our body’s parasympathetic nervous system.
When we perceive a real threat, our body activates the fight or flight response. Consequently, the body begins a process of intensification with the sole intention of protecting the body. Our sympathetic nervous system directs all resources toward fighting off a threat or fleeing from danger. Anxiety or worry is caused by experiencing many fearful thoughts which in turn activate this biological alarm system. Without realizing it, one develops a pattern of responding to situations in a fearful manner, consequently activating fight or flight inappropriately. If this pattern persists long enough, one feels constantly on edge and begins to believe that this feeling is normal, convincing oneself “that’s just how I am.”
The mind is very crafty at convincing you are in danger, even if it is an unrealistic fear. After all, the mind’s opinion feels like truth-—it’s right there inside of your head. However, the mind’s opinions are simply a collection of thoughts, not indisputable facts. Rejecting these opinions is key to managing anxiety.