Everybody has anxiety! We just all experience different levels of it with some people more pre-disposed to it than others. It is a topic we hear a lot about recently - a mental health issue that often went undisclosed and unspoken of in times of yore.
Typically, anxiety can be categorised into 2 levels;
1. Trait Anxiety
2. State anxiety
We all have a natural level of anxiety. We call this our trait anxiety or the level of anxiety that we are normally predisposed to. This can vary between individuals with highly anxious individuals experiencing a high level trait anxiety.
While this natural level of anxiety varies for many, it can elevate significantly, mostly due to a perceived level of threat in one's environment. We call this fear induced state our level of "state anxiety".
For example, different things trigger different levels of threat for different people. Some are afraid of heights, of water, of rats or snakes or even the dark etc. Others may be unaffected by any of these but could be negatively affected by other things such as enclosed spaces, large crowds, spiders, authoritave people, dictatorial work environments, sporting situations, certain fabrics or even awkward social experiences around people with whom you feel uncomfortable. These are just some of numerous possible examples.
This elevated level of "state anxiety" is usually higher than one's "trait" level of anxiety. Generally, this is specific to certain situations as outlined in the examples above and can also vary between situations and between individuals. Put simply, ones resting level of anxiety (trait level) is generally significantly less than the level at which they are predisposed to in an uncomfortable situation.
Spielberger (1997) defined anxiety as "subjective, consciously perceived feelings of tension and apprehension, associated with the arousal of the autonomic nervous system”
The part of the brain that facilitates rational decision making processes in the brain is called the "frontal lobe" or pre-frontal cortex. However, when one finds themselves in a perceived uncomfortable situation as the brain detects threat, rational decision making or frontal lobe function is reduced as it interacts with the brain's threat detector!
It is reduced due to the triggering of the part of the brain that helps us detect threat - the hippocampus. The hippocampus performs a vital role in our daily lives. Working in tandem with the frontal lobe, it functions as a monitoring process that helps us to react to danger in the environment. The function of the hippocampus ensures that we react to avoid an oncoming car, that we react to negotiate obstacles in our pathway - a lamp-post, a pothole or a flying implement. Without it functioning, we simply would not physically survive.
These parts of the brain (frontal lobe and hippocampus) work within a circuitry loop in tandem with a tiny element at the centre of the brain - the amygdala. In high stress scenarios when elevated threat is detected by the hippocampus, rational thought over-ruled and fear or self doubt experienced, the amygdala is known to enlarge significantly. In high stress scenario's, this triggers the onset of the arousal of the nervous system, resulting in one of three different responses; fight, flight or freeze. In such instances of elevated perceived threat, irrational thinking sees that one's mind can go into overdrive, stimulating over-arousal of the central nervous system, often resulting in needless worry - inducing both physical, psychological and behavioral responses.
Physical stress responses
Increased need to use toilet
Increased heart rate
Psychological stress symptoms
Lack of clear thinking
Inability to sleep
Irrational decision making
Inability to express inner thoughts
Combined at a high level, it can induce mild or moderate panic attacks or what we know as psycho-somatic stress.
These feelings of anxiety may be experienced in any amount of domains - work, business, education, sport or in general life and are generally experienced within a threatening environment.
A recent Gallup Report suggests that anxiety is very prevalent in work environments and that anxiety is one of the main reasons for work absenteeism. Work-place bullying, poor leadership practice, unfair treatment and other undesirable behaviors within a work environment often evoke such feelings in others to a degree that they no longer feel comfortable within a threatening work environment. In such an environment, employees in a fear based climate become less interested in the success of the company, the quality of the product or service, or the customer experience. Their priority often takes the form of just getting to the end of the day without experiencing that anxiety and or sense of threat.
In such instances, the work-place represents nothing but resentment for employees and they become more concerned with compliance and keeping their jobs, while often feeling inhibited in expressing themselves within the work environment. Many even plan out their day to avoid contact with the aggressor - the person who undermines them or the person they perceive as the threat to their well-being.
As such, work-place leadership plays a major role in the creation of a positive group dynamic and leaders must ensure that all employees are treated fairly and with respect to engender a positive motivational climate within the work environment. Where this does not exist, work-place leaders are duty bound to ensure that any cliques or bullying behaviour is stopped and a sense of fairness and respect is afforded to all.
So my advice is that if the "threat" is having an overbearing negative impact on your life, your challenge is to deal with it as best as you can. If there is something that you can do to remove this threat from your daily life, then take action to do just that.
If it isn't something you can remove fully or even immediately, then equipping yourself to be better able to handle it is a good start. Positive self talk may help, as can having somebody to talk to that makes you feel better about yourself - whether that is a friend, a colleague, a family member or a mental health professional.
Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, exercise and or progressive muscular relaxation may also help you find that mind/body balance to help you get through the day.
Everyone is entitled to live an anxiety free life, but sometimes you have just got to empower yourself to take charge of your own life and take control of the threats within your environment.
Doubt your doubts and not your beliefs. Back yourself. If others can do it, then you can too!
Unleash Your Potential
Keith Begley is an Irish based performance psychologist, accredited with Sport Ireland Institute.
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