What is anxiety and what are its causes?

Tam Johnston

The normality of anxiety

We all get (or more accurately run the process anxietyof getting) anxious from time to time. It’s part of what makes us human. But what is anxiety when it becomes problematic? Let’s look at what’s normal first.

It is a normal process that we run in our body and mind that helps us prepare for the unknown, troubleshoot and prevent exposure to anticipated threats. We all have it from time to time and without it kicking in when we need it, we wouldn’t survive! Used right, it’s our protector, our own inbuilt health and safety officer. In all seriousness, thank goodness for anxiety!

What anxiety is good for

The presence and use of anxiety means that we are adaptable to the world that we live in. It helps us learn, plan, predict as well as respond to genuinely threatening circumstances where we need a fight, flight or freeze response. Anxiety provides motivation for us to take action. Whether it is the survival actions in the last sentence or whether on a day-to-day basis, where it serves as a drive and momentum to get things done before the consequences of not doing so really suck!

So in essence, it is our friend. But it gets a bad rep, and can become a bit unruly for a whole bunch of reasons that I’ll cover another time (there’s a lot!!).

So let’s get back to what anxiety is. Many of us know that anxiety comes about when we are triggered by something perceived, that evokes the infamous fight and flight response that we’ve already mentioned. To make a brief but important distinction, this is different from fear, which is a response based upon a genuine and present threat.

But there’s a bit more to anxiety than that by understanding it, it can help us know what to target if it’s running awry.

When is anxiety a problem?

Anxiety becomes disproportionate if we have accumulated or create a lot of triggers throughout our lives, or if it becomes habitually learned response that we have inadvertently run the process of so many times that it becomes our go-to response to life stressors and the situations it can throw up. Life situations such as meeting new people, taking on new responsibilities, facing novel situations and so on all get hijacked by anxiety. Over time this list can g-r-O-W-W-W significantly and anxiety just becomes a habit that seems to be attached to most things we have to do or encounter.

So inadvertently, we can develop a pattern of hyper-reactivity to the normal stresses inherent to our world. This hyper-reactivity can be a combination of our physical and emotional responses (bodily our symptoms and mood/feelings) as well as hyperactivity in particular styles of thinking that or feed anxiety within our mind. That’s why I said we run the process of anxiety above. Although sometimes it might seem like it comes out of nowhere, there are things that we do (without realising) that feed the pattern and sustain it. That’s why it’s important to understand what anxiety is and how it comes about, because there’s things that we can also do differently that will lead to a different response. It’s this area that allows us to get in there and retrain and (literally) rewire our brain so that we don’t have to respond in this way anymore.


Where anxiety comes from

The reasons and causes of anxiety are too broad to me to do justice here. But suffice to say that it can come from two different areas of our brain, and from two periods of time. Let’s look at time first.

The source of anxiety- past associations or new creation

Anxiety can be a learned response to our perceptions of a current situation or an imagined future moment. If we have had previous experiences that created the feeling of anxiety (and any accompanying thoughts) within us at the time, they end up being a ‘feeling or thought memory’ that plays out in similar situations in the now. So for example, having experienced a meeting that has gone bad previously, you might walk into a meeting at work and your heart starts beating rapidly, or you may find yourself thinking “it’s not going to go well” , “people are going to think I don’t know what I’m talking about” and so on.

Or, we can create anxiety ‘anew’ and fresh the present moment around something that we haven’t encountered before, simply by repeating our anxiety habit and bring it into a brand-new arena.

Anxiety seems to create a remarkable habit of predicting more anxiety in the future. It’s sneaky like that. If I could have a pound for the number of times I hear my clients saying “I know that I’ll be anxious”… [as a response to a certain situation}, “I know I’m going mess it up”… and so on… I’d have a whole lot of wonga* by now! (that’s cash for you non-British folk!)

All anxiety is in effect future-based because even if we think we worried about how we perceive in the now, it’s actually the consequences of what that might mean in the future that we worried about. So all anxiety is future-based on even if it’s only a few seconds ahead in time! Anxiety uses our brain as a time machine!

So quick recap – anxiety can stem from our past experiences that get triggered in the now, or we can create anxiety in the now and project into the present moment or into our future.


The two different brain pathways that cause anxiety

The second aspect is what part of our brain is causing the anxiety.  Sadly this area of understanding is less commonly addressed in traditional talking therapies, which means I get a lot of people coming to me saying that those types of therapies have worked. There is a common misnomer that anxiety is predominantly generated from our thoughts and it is this activates a fight and flight system and leads to physical symptoms.

Although partly true, in fact there are two different brain circuits and areas of the brain that cause anxiety. Commonly referred to as top-down and bottom-up, the first is top-down.

This is when a lot of therapists and disciplines spend their time and place their focus. What this refers to is anxiety thinking styles that come from that huge chunk of brain mass behind our forehead. Indeed we can talk and think ourselves into (and out of!) anxiety, and is absolutely leads to activating a stress response. From here it is easy to get caught in what I refer to as a think-feel loop, where one feeds the other and so on and so on. But if it was just as easy and people would indeed be able to consistently ‘think’ themselves of anxiety based upon the cognitive tools that are out there.

But anxiety also comes bottom-up, that is, directly from a different part of the brain that stems from what is known as the limbic centre itself; the area responsible for fight and flight and that also contains emotional memories (put simplistically!). So this is the brain circuit that is in play when we just get triggered out of nowhere, often without any thoughts at the point where it is activated. This is the pathway that kicks in when we’ve got an old memory that is re-triggered and reactivated in the now. It’s the pathway that directly switches on a fight and flight response and therefore the treatment of this source of anxiety requires significantly different techniques and therapy to the more cognitive, top-down, cerebral type approaches.

So I hope you can see why understanding is so important in being to take control of anxiety. Because by understanding it means you can start identifying for yourself the source of the anxiety and therefore what might be needed. Naturally there is always crossover, and in a way all anxiety comes from the past, because that’s when we first ‘created’ it as a response. But to be able to work more with what’s going on and what’s coming up most frequently, enables a fast track, effective route to really freeing yourself up from disproportionate anxiety.

Be curious to notice:

Are you creating it afresh about something going on now or upcoming? Is your imagination on autopilot, habitually thinking unhelpful, negative catastrophic type things? If so, this is about learning to adjust your thoughts whilst coming any physical sensations that may come up as a result of this type of thinking.

Are you being triggered by a memory from that creates an almost immediate response in you? A good way to spot this is to think about what does this situation remind you of? The brain is very literal this associations so it may be something that doesn’t seem overly relevant.

If this is the common source of anxiety it more therapeutic work that needs to be done to recondition that all response, possibly work with any trauma, give you tools and techniques to work very specifically with the body and the activated nervous system as well as then challenge any habitual thoughts that come about as a result of you been triggered.


Interested in working with Tam? make an enquiry below.

Or if you want to know more about how we may work together and what it may look like, you can find out more here.



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