Anxiety has an adaptive function as it is really the emotion of fear that has kept our species alive, particularly back in the time when we were so vulnerable to the environment and other animals.

Anxiety is very important in 2 ways. One is the fight/flight response which is a hardwired response in our limbic system that creates physiological reaction to produce a surge of adrenalin, become quickly aware of a threat and to fight or run from it. The other aspect of anxiety is more the frontal lobe of our brain that helps us to think about the possibility of threat so that we can manage it in advance. For example, if we are sitting in a cave and there is a sabre tooth tiger outside we may think, “what if the Sabre tooth tiger climbs up to the cave, well maybe we should build a door to keep it out”. This frontal lobe part of our brain can help us to imagine worst case scenarios, feared futures and reminds us of problems of the past to help our physical survival. This feared thinking could actually trigger the fight/flight response, as this primitive part of our brain doesn’t easily discriminate between a feared threat (thoughts) and an actual threat.

In our current society we don’t have the same physical threats that we once did, but this primitive part of our brain has not adapted, so we start to worry and ruminate on situations where having a stress or fight/flight response isn’t actually helpful for us. For example, if we are going to present at a work meeting and we fixate on all the things that could go wrong e.g. ‘What if people think I sound silly, what if my boss sees I am a fraud, what if the Power Point presentation doesn’t work properly,’ We will start to activate this stress response in the body and this physiological reaction (fight/flight) is probably not so helpful in a work meeting as it would be if we were trying to outrun a tiger.

Anxiety can be destructive when we allow ourselves to be in a constant state of this reaction and this chronic stress is linked to numerous health conditions and thought to be one of the biggest causes of inflammation, the catalyst for major physical and psychological illnesses.

A positive way to think about anxiety is that it is an excellent cue to check in and assess the situation. Firstly, acknowledge if there is an actual life or death threat in our environment. If there is that physiological reaction will it be helpful. But if we are under no actual physical threat it is important to take a moment to notice what it is we are fearful of and remind ourselves that this isn’t a life and death situation.

If you notice you are anxious some of the best things to do are:

  1. Stop and label what you are feeling, e.g. right now I am noticing I am feeling scared or fearful.
  2. Check out what is it you are fearful of. Sometimes there will be an answer (a work meeting) and other times there may not be (I am just feeling this sensation right now).
  3. Allow yourself to take a moment to ground yourself, feel your feet on the ground, relax your muscles in your body and take a few breaths, this will help activate the opposite response from the fight/flight response).
  4. See if you are willing to have the feeling of fear. Often when we are moving towards something we care about fear comes along for the ride, the best things we can do is welcome fear as a passenger on our journey and remember that fear like any other emotion doesn’t have control of the show.
  5. Focus on the behaviours that matter most to you in this moment – e.g. if you are going into a work meeting – focus on slow speech, good eye contact, spending time connecting with each person in the room. Remember that behaviours are what you can control and see if you can allow fear to be there just as it is, as sensation in the body, let go of the thoughts. The best thing we can do is practice putting ourselves in situations that create fear and anxiety (yet are physically safe) so that we start getting practiced at moving with our fear, rather than stopping or changing direction when fear shows up.


Mind Body Resilience

Merging two of her passions – travel and wellness – Samantha founded Mind Body Resilience wellness retreats held in Australia and overseas. These wellness intensives assist health professionals and the general public reconnect with their sense of meaning, combat burnout and kick-start their overall health.

Held in stunning natural locales the retreats combine evidence based psychological strategies, along with movement practices and nutritional needs to arm participants with the skills needed to bounce back from stress, pursue goals and address barriers that ultimately arise in life.

The next wellness intensive is 17th to 22nd August and 13th to 16th October in Noosa. The next retreat for health professionals is in Byron Bay from 28th October to 2nd November. Note: MBR also create and deliver specialised retreat experiences for you and your friends. Contact [email protected] for more details

Dr Samantha Clarke