Lizard, Squirrel, Monkey: why do we get anxious?

urlAs a counsellor something that I see again and again is anxiety. It is very common: along with depression it is one of the most frequently googled mental health issues. Research suggests that anxiety is growing in young people and is more common in women than it is in men. We can speculate over the factors in this increase, but lets focus first on what we mean by anxiety.

What is it? 

People often describe anxiety as a feeling of fear that comes out of the blue. Uncomfortable feelings can be easier to live with if there is a reason for them, so the seemingly irrational nature of anxiety makes it especially difficult. The founder of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) Arron Beck, described anxiety as being a fixation with danger, and that it is the way our brains process information that is faulty. Anxiety can take many forms: it is sometimes described as Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), social anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and trauma.

 Where does it come from?

Anxiety can feel very random and leaves us feeling out of control, but there are some explanations for its origin.

Our brains are very complex, but can roughly be divided into three parts. The oldest part of the brain is the Brain Stem and Cerebellum and is sometimes nicknamed the lizard or reptilian brain. This is responsible for our basic urges – to seek food, a mate and to watch for danger. It was once very useful when we spent our time hunting and killing prey, and being hunted. Today the threat of danger is more abstract: we might worry about how to pay the mortgage, why someone hasn’t texted back, or what will happen if we fail our exams, but the lizard part of our brain can’t tell the difference and gets us ready to fight, flight or freeze as if the danger is physical.

This leaves us physically ready to act, with a raised heartbeat, increased breathing, an excess of cortisol and adrenaline, but we cannot run away from problems that are in our heads.

The second layer of our brains is the Limbic system or ‘Squirrel brain’. This is responsible for our feelings and emotions, it helps us bond with others and form relationships. It is what makes us social rather than animals governed by primitive urges.

The most sophisticated part of the brain is the Neo Cortex or the Monkey brain. This is our logical thinking brain. It helps us to reason, speculate, fantasise, and think abstract thoughts.

All three parts of the brain are very different, and the theory goes that it is the clash between the three that contributes to modern anxiety.

How do I know if I have it?

There is certainly a role for anxiety, worry and stress in our lives. They may be uncomfortable but they can help us get things done. However when anxiety gets out of control it can get in the way of our plans, stop us from doing the things we want to do, and make our lives miserable. Anxiety is not just something that happens in our heads. It’s true that we may notice ourselves thinking differently, but we also see signs of it in the body, and we may also see our behaviour changing. Some of the symptoms include:

Physical signs:

  • Increase in muscle tension
  • Increased heart rate, heart palpitations, chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Blushing
  •  Dry mouth
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Sweating
  • Diarrhoea and/ or vomiting
  • Headaches, dizziness
  • Shaking/ tremors

Psychological signs:

  • Worrying excessively about past or future events
  • Mind racing or blank
  • Feeling on edge or nervous for no reason
  • Feeling stuck in negative thought patterns
  • Unable to concentrate or focus
  • Repetitive thinking
  • Negative thoughts about self, others or the world in general
  • Feeling irritable or bad tempered
  • Feeling low or sad
  • Behavioural signs:
  • Avoiding situations that increase anxiety
  • Actions that are repetitive and compulsive
  • Over eating or drinking
  • Self harming
  • Insomnia (trouble sleeping)
  • Safety behaviours

For some people, knowing that their experience of anxiety is not completely random, and that it is the body’s way of helping us, can be a useful first step to getting better. For others, further tools and strategies are needed to get to grips with the anxiety gremlin. We will look at these in the next instalment….


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