Anxiety is something we have all experienced at some time in our lives. Like anger, anxiety is a natural human emotional response and some anxiety is extremely useful e.g. feeling anxious before a driving test or interview can make us more alert and enhance our performance. It can also keep us safe from harm. But when anxiety is overwhelming, debilitating and interferes with our daily life then it can be really distressing for the anxious sufferer, causing a whole host of problems. This is when anxiety needs to be managed.
Anxiety is important for our own survival. It can act as a mechanism to protect our body against stress or danger. Anxiety and fear trigger the release of hormones, such as adrenalin, which make the heart beat faster in order to carry blood where it’s most needed. Our breathing becomes faster to provide the extra oxygen required for energy. We sweat to prevent overheating. The mouth may feel dry; as our digestive system slows down to allow more blood to be deflected to your muscles. Our senses become heightened and the brain becomes more alert. These changes enable the body to take action and protect itself in a dangerous situation, either by running away or fighting a foe. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ reaction and is as natural to the animal kingdom as it is to human beings. Once the danger has passed, other hormones are released, which may cause the body to shiver as the muscles start to relax. Hopefully this explains why anxiety is a useful emotional response, surely no one can argue with that?
But it’s when the body reacts in the same way when there is no obvious imminent danger… or is there?
As survivors of sexual abuse, we have suffered a major ‘distressing event’… the abuse! Often, especially if the abuse happened to us when we were children, we were unable to really deal with the emotions at that time and as our lives go on we can become anxious about encountering the same situation again, in case it stirs up the same feelings we’ve tried so hard to suppress. To everyone else around us, there may be no obvious threat of danger, but if we have perceived that there is, then our anxiety rockets.
It is the ‘perceived’ danger that is the root cause of many people’s anxiety and logically speaking, if we can work through the perception then the anxiety can be reduced.
Smells, sounds, images, words, songs, accents, the look of someone, personal space, environments, buildings, physical contact, intimacy, sex, touch, doctors, authority, power, darkness… there are a hundreds of triggers survivors have that cognitively engage the perception of a threat. But there are also many ways in which we can take back the power and take control of our anxiety.