Updated: Feb 7
Ever been told to “calm down”? Or that “you’re overreacting”, “it’s not a
big deal”? Maybe you’ve been the one to tell yourself that.
Why do seemingly “minor” things trigger off an anxiety reaction?
Maybe your friend didn’t wave back when you saw them in the street; or that stranger gave you a funny look; there was an awkward silence in the group discussion; maybe you had an argument with your partner which was resolved earlier in the day.
So why are you still feeling shaky, short of breath, or tense? Why is your
mind still fixating on every little thing you did and said? To answer this question, let's take a trip back in time together.
A Trip Back in Time…
Let's rewind tens of thousands of years to the beginning of humankind.
Back to when we were hunter/gatherers, roaming the wilderness and sharing it with all matter of creatures.
Now imagine you’re minding your own business, picking berries, drinking some water, you turn around and there’s a sabretooth tiger. In an instant, a whole range of things happen in your brain.
The “Danger Alarm”
The first process is a thought, “it’s going to kill me”, which can lead to you feeling terrified. This is followed by a number of automatic bodily reactions thanks to the sympathetic nervous system. These bodily reactions drive us to act quickly and can include reactions like:
Adrenaline starts flowing.
Heart rate increases.
Muscles tighten causing tension.
Blood pressure increases.
Stomach activity slows down.
These bodily reactions get our bodies ready to respond with fight, flight, or freeze. There is no right or wrong way to behave. If you are fit and have experience hunting, you’re more likely to fight. If you are fit but are typically a gatherer, you probably will run away. If you are injured, or too weak to fight or run, you will probably hide aka freeze.
All of these automatic reactions are in service of our survival.
However, these days, it’s less likely that we’ll encounter situations where our lives will be at an immediate risk. We’re more likely to come across vague, potential, future threats.
Let’s take public speaking for example. A lot of people get nervous, anxious or experience panic attacks at the thought of presenting in front of others. In the work context, when presenting to a room of colleagues and your boss, the worries might be, “I hope I don’t get this wrong, what if I haven’t made enough progress? What if my boss thinks I’m an idiot? Then I’ll get fired”.
Okay, so that might be a bit of a stretch logically, but emotionally, the reason why it might trigger an anxious reaction is because the potential implications of that “what if” scenario are “Then I won’t have a job, no job means, no money, no money means no food, water, shelter, no food, water, shelter means I’ll die!” Very dramatic stuff coming from our anxious brain.
Obviously, logically we know that this is extremely unlikely to be the case
but our danger alarm has already been triggered. So, our body quickly follows suit.
What if your concerns aren’t about failure, but about embarrassing yourself in front of your peers and friends?
Social rejection is a big trigger for anxiety in a lot of people. Again, the reason for this dates back to an innate human instinct. Back in cave people days, there was safety in numbers. In order to sleep and relieve ourselves safely, we need people to watch our back. If we were exiled from our tribe, it would be very likely a predator would pick us off quite quickly.
So, embarrassment is the emotion we feel which motivates us to fit in and avoid that catastrophic scenario.
Does the Level of Threat = Level of Reaction?
When it comes to a proportionate level of feeling (and therefore bodily reaction and behaviour), it comes down to how we assess the initial trigger.
Is it immediately life threatening? Yes? Then you wouldn’t have time to think and you would automatically just fight, flight, or freeze.
If you have time to think about it, then no, it isn’t an immediately life-threatening situation. However, it could be a potentially life threatening situation (as COVID was in the early days, pre-vax), or a potentially threatening situation (like walking home late at night, by yourself), or a plain old situation (like public speaking).
The danger alarm in our brain is there to protect us. But like a helicopter parent, its threshold for what we need protection from, is overly sensitive. In order to reduce the sensitivity of our danger alarm, we can take a step back, and logically assess the level of threat. Once our reaction matches the situation, we can learn to respond in a much more helpful way.