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The Primitive Roots and Purpose of Anxiety

Anxiety. Wow, what a pain! It can really ruin your day, your week, you might even feel its ruining your life! It can feel like there’s no escape…

But its important to understand that most people experience anxiety at some point in their lives, so you aren’t alone. It is a primitive, adaptive response that helps us prepare for and respond to potential danger or stress. Usually, its short term, until the danger or stress has passed. However, anxiety can also become a chronic disorder that interferes with daily functioning and our happiness. The origins of anxiety can be traced back to our primitive ancestors who lived in a dangerous world filled with predators and other threats. To survive, we needed to be alert and ready to respond to any potential danger. This response is known as the “flight or fight” response, which is controlled by the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus in the brain. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for detecting and interpreting threats. It activates the hypothalamus, which releases chemicals that prepare the body for action. Releasing adrenaline and cortisol, increasing the heart rate and blood pressure and redirecting blood flow to the muscles. It also down-regulates other functions in the body, as they aren’t needed while we fight or run – like digestion and, often, sleep! But in chronic stress, this becomes a problem and can have long-term health implications – even when the stress is moderate. The hippocampus is also involved in this response, as it stores memories of past threats and helps us make decisions about how to respond to current threats using patterns of previous behaviour. So we will often react to the “threat”, based on past patterns, rather than respond in a calm, rational way. This will often just add to the stress! While the flight or fight response was essential for our ancestors to survive, it is not always appropriate in modern-day life. Many of the threats we face today are not physical, but rather psychological or social. In these situations, the flight or fight response is not helpful and can cause more harm than good. But it has an opposite number – rest and digest. This is a useful state, where we are at our best and where we respond rationally to problems, rather than react to them. For example, if someone is giving a presentation at work and becomes anxious, the fight or flight response may cause them to freeze or stumble. This can lead to further anxiety and difficulty in similar situations. This, in turn, increases stress and it goes on and on, like a snowball effect. It is important to recognize when the flight or fight is not appropriate, acknowledge the stress and find ways to manage it healthily. This can include breathing techniques, exercise, and seeking support from friends or a qualified therapist. The primitive origins of anxiety and its relationship to the amygdala, hypothalamus, and hippocampus are important to understand to better manage anxiety in modern-day life. By recognizing when the flight or fight response is not necessary and finding healthy ways to manage anxiety, we can live more fulfilling, happy and productive lives. If you relate, why not book a FREE consultation call with me today to discuss how I can help you.

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