I see many clients who report experiencing increasing anxiety. So when I ask them what would they like help with, the typical answer is to stop or to remove the anxiety. Hearing this so often made me think, removing anxiety, is it a good or a bad thing?
To answer this, we need to start by understanding the role of anxiety in our lives and we can do so by learning about the “fight or flight” response. Back in the day ( and I mean way back, thousands of years back) we used to live in environments where we were quite exposed to danger and predators such as big, scary bears attacking us. Unlike other animals, humans are quite vulnerable, frail and susceptible to being attacked. For example, a bat forages at night to avoid being caught, a turtle has a shell that it can retract in, and a chameleon has the ability to camouflage in the face of danger. As humans, we don’t have much, if anything at all. So developing a system that can protect us from danger is a must. Such a system has developed in the form of the “fight or flight” response.
The “fight or flight” response protects us from danger by releasing chemical messages in our bodies in the face of real or perceived danger. These changes prepare our body to either fight the danger or run away from it. For example, one of the changes is increased heart rate. This means that our heart pumps blood faster to the muscles, providing them with oxygen to either run away or fight the danger. It is an automatic response and we don’t have to think about it much when it gets started.
I am a short woman with not much strength, so it makes a lot of sense for me to develop a system that ensures my survival when facing a big scary bear. But the truth is, nowadays, how likely is it that we would have to face a bear and how much do we actually need a system to help us deal with this kind of predator? If you are like me and live in a flat or a house, and not in the woods or out in the open, probably not that much.
Buying a house, starting a business, sending an e-mail, talking to someone in authority, going to a job interview, and taking an exam are all situations where we experience all that familiar rush of anxiety. So although we don’t have the natural predators we had back in the day, we still experience the “fight or flight” response in the face of today’s threats. Going for a job interview might not exactly be the same as facing a predator, but it will sure feel like it. The question is: is the “fight or flight” response still necessary?
And the answer is yes. One of the effects of bathing in the chemical changes of the “fight or flight response” is that we selectively focus and concentrate on the perceived threat. So being anxious about a job interview will help us narrow our attention to it and can help us prepare more for the interview. Also, anxiety gives us an increased motivation to deal with the threat, whether that is a job interview or anything else. You want to be motivated to deal with this and not passive and laid back.
To really see that we need anxiety, we can look at other animals. We all know what happened to the dodo bird. In short, it became extinct because it did not have a “fight or flight” response, so it didn’t have a fear of humans, which made it an easy bird to catch and eat. And that’s what humans did. We caught and ate them until they were gone. So a certain degree of anxiety definitely helps us survive.
However, I do not intend to pretend that having lots of anxiety is a good thing. The more, the merrier principle certainly does not work here. Having lots of anxiety can cripple us, it makes us feel overwhelmed, and exhausted, and experience a wide range of symptoms including the inability to make decisions. I certainly do not tell my clients that having lots of anxiety is fine and they need to get over it and be ok. But I also do not believe that we should not experience anxiety at all. After all, having no anxiety is like having a car with no alarm. You can’t stop your car from being stolen if there’s no way for you to hear there’s a car thief messing with it.
Ioana Rotaru is a London psychotherapist specialising in working with people with histories of childhood emotional neglect and trauma who now want to improve their relationship with themselves and others. If you would like to explore addressing any of the issues in this article, please contact Ioana at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free 15 minutes consultation about how therapy might help.