Until fairly recently, life for human beings was considered “nasty, brutish, and short.” Predators abounded. Danger lied around every corner. Life was a constant struggle for survival. Your life depended on instincts and reflexes learned over thousands of years of evolution, and the moment you didn’t respond rapidly to a threat might have been your last. If this all sounds anxiety producing – that’s because it was!
The good news is we humans no longer live in such a world. For most twenty-first century inhabitants, survival is no longer our most pressing concern. The bad news is that most of us still react as if we live in world in which danger is rampant. Anxiety can turn anything… a test, a date, a party, into a perceived life-threatening situation in which we feel like our survival is at stake. We are hard-wired to survive, but not to thrive. The result… we’re often miserable and stressed due to anxiety.
The “stress response” becomes activated when we are faced with urgent challenges or demands (like meeting a deadline for work or school), and pushes us to take necessary action to meet these demands. Short-term stress states can be useful in boosting motivation and productivity to get things done.
However, chronic prolonged states of stress (often due to work overload or over-scheduling) can lead to sleep and health issues, increased anger and frustration, and limits our capacity for empathy, emotional connection, and joy.
Anxiety is both an innate and learned experience that is designed to protect us from perceived harm and threats. We all endure stressors and “triggers” in daily life such as deadlines, relationship conflict, worry about the future, failure…the list goes on. These triggers activate unpleasant emotional experiences including anger, worry, fear, shame, just to name a few. We are hardwired to try and “get rid of” or “control” these negative internal and external experiences in some way; often by avoiding, escaping, or engaging in another activity that makes us feel better.
Through trial and error, we learn what actions help us feel better and what actions leave us feeling uncomfortable and activated. However, the relief we obtain from escaping or controlling is temporary until the next trigger or stressor arises. At which time the cycle of attempting to escape or control unwanted, unpleasant internal and external experiences is perpetuated. Leaving us stuck in a never-ending cycle of avoiding things that make us feel bad or uncomfortable. Our tolerance for facing and enduring life stressors can quickly decline, leaving us vulnerable to feeling defeated and at the mercy of anxiety.