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I'm afraid that...

We use this phrase all the time. It might mean 'I'm sorry I have to tell you that...' or 'I'm scared that will happen'. Sometimes we're afraid of real dangers or disappointments, and sometimes we're not.

Anxiety is the clinical term for out of control fear that something bad will happen. It's different from a phobia, which is usually specific. Anxiety can be the fear of everything.

There are several schools of thought about what anxiety is and what causes it, but I subscribe to the one that says it's your brain being overwhelmed with what it perceives to be unnumbered and unmanageable hazards. Your brain's job is to keep you safe, so if it thinks you're in constant danger it's going to be pretty unhappy about it. This means two things happen. Firstly your body is constantly flooded with stress hormones designed to make you able to fight better or run away faster; and secondly your brain continually presents you with reasons not to do whatever it is you're doing that it thinks is dangerous.

Your body is not designed to be in this state of heightened awareness constantly. It's a bit like living off carrots. In moderate quantities carrots are good for you; they're rich in fibre and vitamin D. However if you eat nothing else for a prolonged period, you will not only become deficient in iron, sodium, potassium, fats and many other vital vitamins and minerals, you will also turn orange. Seriously. Nobody needs that. So if you overdose on fight or flight hormones - or carrots - you will start to feel physically ill as well as emotionally fraught.

This is stupid!

One of the things that people often wonder about is how they can do one activity relatively easily and freak out at another similar or even more innocuous activity. Standing in line is something that many people struggle to do even if they haven't been diagnosed with anxiety but have stress or depression. There's a good reason for this.

When you're standing in line your brain knows you can't move until your turn comes round. This is a form of being trapped. Also, you probably have nothing to do but stand there; as your brain is on hyper-alert for danger, it notices a lot more stuff than usual and there's nothing to distract it. So it goes into overdrive. Rationally you know you're in no danger, but your brain - the part of it that's occupied with the primal urge of survival, which isn't all that rational - doesn't know or care. If you think about it from the perspective of your survival instinct, standing in line can be pretty scary - you're trapped in a location where literally anything could happen. Remember your brain is already high on stress hormones anyway. Whereas if you're walking around the supermarket, you're much safer. You're able to move in any direction and you've got that metal cart to protect you as well. It doesn't make any sense, but that's your rational brain talking.

That doesn't mean, by the way, that if you have anxiety you'll be able to go shopping. A lot of people can't. But people who don't have problems doing anything else can still find they get panicky when they're standing in line.

What can I do about it?

All this means anxiety is pretty difficult to manage, because you're trying to work against some of the strongest instincts we have. Telling yourself that nothing scary is happening rarely has much effect, although if you can activate the rational side of your brain by asking yourself some questions, that can quiet the irrational side because they can't both function at the same time. That's why when you're anxious, you can't think straight.

There are two techniques that I've found immediately helpful - breathing control and grounding. You can do them both at once.

You'll have noticed that if you're anxious, you breathe more quickly. That's so your muscles get extra oxygen ready for the fighting or running away they might have to do. But too much oxygen is bad for you, which is why hyperventilating is a bad thing. So if you can consciously slow your breathing, you can counteract some of the effect of the instinctive response. The first thing to do is notice how you're breathing already, and count how long it takes you to breathe in and out. Then you just try to make each breath one count longer. It doesn't matter whether your breaths start at one count or 10 - if you've started at one, aim for two. Then three. Then four. And so on. There's no target. When you've made your breaths as long as you can, concentrate on keeping them like that.

While you're doing that, imagine that there are roots growing out of the soles of your feet, down through the floor and the building foundations and into the earth underneath. You can feel them spreading out under you like the roots of a tree. You can take them as wide and deep as you like. You can still move - they're really stretchy - but while you're grounded you will feel much safer and less anxious. Try it.

Do I really have anxiety?

Well, I can't answer that. What I will say is that some people who have anxiety will assume that any situation they find uncomfortable is a symptom of their anxiety, whereas it's possible it's something anyone would dislike. Walking into a room full of strangers for example is something that a lot of people get anxious about. It may or may not be helpful for you to consider this as a symptom of an anxiety disorder.

Whether your symptoms are general or severe enough to attract a clinical diagnosis of anxiety is a bit of a red herring in my opinion, unless you want medication. If you find your emotions are getting in the way of doing things you want to do, then you have an issue that's serious enough to be called a problem and could benefit from some support. Whether you call it lack of confidence, shyness, social anxiety or generalised anxiety disorder can be a matter of preference. Do whatever's helpful for you. Getting a clinical diagnosis will open up avenues of help that won't be there if you try to manage on your own, so that's one reason to do it; but a lot of people don't want to have that 'label' attached to them and would prefer to call it something else.

About 75% of people with anxiety don't seek help. Don't be one of them.

If you have found this article helpful, please share it with a friend.


Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If this blog has touched you and you would like to contact her in confidence, you can reach her at or via her website at

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