Cognitive psychologists, who like to think of us humans as very logical and rational, say that anxiety is useful because it sends a signal to the brain saying “change direction!” whenever we’re doing (or about to do) something dangerous. In this way, it acts in a similar way to pain. Pain itself is not the real problem but a signal that there is one – it might be indicating a bone fracture or appendicitis, for example. Pain gets our attention, and anxiety acts in a similar way to indicate that there’s something wrong.
Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy (and grandfather of CBT), said that we are constructed “in such a way as to ascribe great significance to the experience of anxiety”, so that we’ll feel compelled to do something about it. It’s such an uncomfortable feeling, in other words, that we’ll stop doing whatever is causing anxiety, and so remain safe.
But this isn’t always the case. It’s entirely possible to experience anxiety but be unable to identify its cause. In fact, many people suffering from high levels of generalised anxiety don’t know why they feel this way, and may feel bad about themselves for this perceived incompetence. So what’s happening in these cases?
Our primitive brain decides
As the great trauma expert Peter Levine pointed out, there’s a difference between anxiety designed to produce a volitional response (e.g. stop driving so fast) and one that’s designed to produce an involuntary response or reaction. And here lies the answer for the more mystifying types of anxiety – they stem from an area of the brain that controls all our involuntary actions (such as breathing and heart rate). This is the sub-cortical section of the brain, which also houses our basic animal instincts, including the supreme instinct to survive. When this part of the brain is triggered into perceiving a survival threat, it causes an instant, non-volitional reaction. It’s super-fast, because it’s not a good idea to be wondering about whether that car heading straight for you might swerve at the last minute. You see it coming, and you’ve leaped out of the way before thinking about it. This is very different to the volitional anxiety that Beck was talking about, which might make you carefully step back from a cliff.
The fast-reacting, involuntary kind of response that sees us jump away from a snake comes from the primitive, sub-cortical part of our brain that we share with other mammals. It assesses any threat in the environment and forces us into taking involuntary action if survival demands this. But our animal brain (the ‘reptilian’ and limbic parts of the brain) does more than this – it also immediately assesses whether we can escape or fight back, or are trapped and can do nothing.
This unconscious decision – about whether to fight, take flight or freeze – becomes known to us through our reaction to the threat. If our animal brain has decided we can fight this or make a run for it, we may experience symptoms such as a tightening sensation across the neck, shoulders, arms and legs, rapid heartbeat, and a feeling of being ‘ready for action’. We have an active pattern of coping, and a set of actions that can arise and be completed.
But if our animal brain has decided that fighting or running won’t work, what happens is that our active forms of defence (fight/flight) are aborted. They arise but are quickly switched off – and it is this incompletion of the active coping mechanism that causes anxiety to follow from the event. We freeze, which is one of the last defences of any animal, and lock down any movements that we would wish to make to save ourselves. These incompleted responses, such as running or punching, are denied and locked down. Anxiety that seems to have ‘no reason’, is essentially the energy wrapped up in these unrealised defensive responses. The anxiety stems from times when we wanted to fight or run, but were trapped or overwhelmed, and had to contain our active defences, instead falling back on passive ones (the freeze response or even thanatosis, where the body appears to be dead).
Anxiety doesn’t arise from dangerous situations, but from a feeling of being unable to cope with them and take action to get out of them. Levine says that “ultimately we have only one fear, the fear of not being able to cope, of our own un-copability. Without active, available, defensive responses, we are unable to deal effectively with danger and so we are, proportionately, anxious”. And that anxiety does not go away over time. It remains in the mind and body.
This kind of anxiety can either erupt occasionally in the event of being triggered, or operate as a kind of background hum all the time.
It also can be said to result from trauma – which involved a feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to escape. But we’d remember that, wouldn’t we? Confusingly, not always. Sometimes the trauma occurred many years ago, in childhood (such as being bullied at school or frightened by an angry parent) or stemmed from an event that we remember but don’t realise has affected us in a very deep way (such as caring for a loved one when they were dying). Traumatic memories are different: they are not processed fully or correctly at the time (because they were too overwhelming to the system) and so they are inadequately processed and maladaptively stored. Instead of fitting into the autobiographical memory of our everyday lives, they remain ‘unfiled’ in some way, and continue to intrude, unbidden, into our lives at odd moments.
Which means that it’s quite possible to feel highly anxious, while not knowing why. But the not-knowing does not mean that the fear is illogical or unreachable, or that the sufferer is behaving stupidly in some way. Quite the opposite – the person suffering from this form of anxiety has had to be immensely brave at some point in their lives. This is where therapy can play a vital role, in helping someone to realise and release the emotions and actions that were put aside for survival, and genuinely let go.
‘A person suffering from this type of anxiety
has had to be incredibly brave at some point in their lives’