Why We Feel Anxious

Why We Feel Anxious

Why We Feel

What we know about anxiety, though, means that even if we had a magic wand that could eliminate totally your ability to feel anxiety, we would not want to use it. An inability to feel anxiety would be akin to an inability to feel pain. Pain isn’t pleasant, but it provides us with information that is often essential for our physical survival and psychological integrity. As with pain, we are well-advised to listen to anxiety first, rather than seek to immediately deny, avoid, or eliminate it.

You often hear it stated that ours is the age of anxiety. Indeed, the data appear to back this up. Anxiety problems are the most commonly diagnosed class of psychological disorders.

But what is anxiety? Unlike fear, which involves the perception of imminent unambiguous danger and the mobilisation of immediate action, anxiety is a persistent apprehension regarding potential future threats. While fear is associated with an immediate “fight or flight” response that produces terror, anxiety provokes a “stop, look and listen” response and produces anticipatory worry. In other words, anxiety is what you feel on the night before the big battle. Fear is what you feel during battle.


Why do we get anxious? Evidence from evolutionary psychology suggests that the capacity to experience anxiety is a selected species-wide adaptation serving to alert and protect us from various environmental threats. Particularly, anxiety functions to alert us to threats to our reproductive chances. Thus, the anxiety alarms ring loudly not only in the face of threats to life and limb, but also when encountering threats to our property, status, reputation, or skill. In other words, anxiety is effective in alerting us to the myriad risks of loss.


Take, for example, social anxiety, the fear of being judged negatively or rejected by others. Human beings are social animals. We survive and thrive only inside well-organised groups. A loss of social standing, support, or resources reduces our odds of survival. Therefore, social anxiety may serve to inhibit those behaviours that jeopardise our social standing.


All evolved adaptations, however, create their own risks, and all are susceptible to malfunction. Likewise, the protective function of anxiety may be neutralised, hacked, or subverted in various ways. Trauma, for example, can cause the evolved “alarm system” to remain constantly “on,” resulting in hyper-vigilance, a form of malfunction that’s at the core of PTSD. Moreover, our current environment is different than the one in which our anxiety mechanisms have evolved. The mismatch can create problems, as when our fear of heights, evolved at a time when encountering heights meant mortal danger (a cliff; a tall tree, etc.), over-activates needlessly in a contemporary environment dominated by safe heights (office buildings, glass elevators, aeroplanes, etc.).


Contemporary evolutionary psychology is not alone in arguing that anxiety serves a purpose. Several other schools of thought in psychology have advanced their own ideas about the uses of anxiety.

For example, Freud recognised the protective function of anxiety in the form of what he called Reality Anxiety—the basic ego function of, well, dealing with reality and the dangers and threats it poses. Dreading the approaching train if you’re standing on the railroad is such anxiety. A second type, Moral Anxiety, refers to the fear of violating the moral standards that constitute the superego, and often manifests in feelings of guilt or shame that may motivate us to adhere to community norms.


For Freud, though, the main action involves the third type, Neurotic Anxiety: an internal experience that occurs when the destructive impulses of the id threaten to overwhelm the self-protective mechanisms of the ego.

Generally, when Freud talks about “neurosis,” he refers to a pattern of reacting to situations in disproportionate and thus mal-adaptive ways. We react “neurotically” when our internal representation of a situation ill matches its objective characteristics—when we see the shadows of mountains as mountains, so to speak. Such distorted internal representation is usually due to some unconscious conflict or early trauma. For example, if a dog attacked me in childhood, then my representation of “dog” is as a menacing monster. When I see a dog now and recoil in fear, I am in effect reacting not to the dog in front of me, but to my internal representation of dogs as monsters. My reaction, therefore, is “neurotic.”


Freud argued famously that the ego, once rattled, activates a series of unconscious Defence Mechanisms that work to reduce anxiety by (ironically) distorting reality. Thus, for example, if the little dog in the previous paragraph terrifies me, I may activate denial, telling everyone I am not in fact terrified. Or rationalisation—explaining that even small dogs these days may be vicious and better safe than sorry. Or I may use projection—attributing uncomfortable feelings to others—by telling my friend not to be scared; or use reaction formation—act super friendly toward the dog to mask my fear. And so on.


Rollo May, the American existential psychologist who rose to prominence in the mid 20th century, had his own ideas. May saw anxiety as emerging from our awareness that we are alive and are going to die. This awareness, in May’s program, is one of the things that separate humans from other animals, who live and die without knowing about it.

In May’s system, anxiety has great value as a source of creativity: “You don’t paint a great picture lying on the couch having an afternoon nap. You paint a great picture by struggle… without anxiety, we would not be able to have the civilisation we now have.” 

Echoing Freud, May also delineated different types of anxiety. Normal Anxiety is proportionate to the objective threat; it can be confronted constructively and consciously and relieved by altering the objective situation. Neurotic Anxiety, on the other hand, denotes a failure to handle normal anxiety. It is, “the result of unfortunate learning in the respect that the individual was forced to deal with threatening situations at a period—usually in early childhood—when he was incapable of coping directly or constructively with such experiences.” Neurotic Anxiety is disproportionate to the objective danger and is managed in part by avoidance, and through the inhibition of activity and awareness. Such avoidance and inhibition function to restrict individual freedom. A restriction of freedom prevents the person from living fully and authentically, and is thus a source of psychological malaise.


Learning theorists (behaviourists) have argued that our useful capacity for associative learning (classical conditioning) underlies the acquisition of anxiety. So, for example, if a bear attacked me in the forest, I may become afraid of forests. This is because I associate the (benign) forest with the fear provoked by the (dangerous) bear. Once I have been thus conditioned to fear the sight (or image) of a forest, I naturally will look for ways to eliminate the noxious fear sensation. Avoiding forests accomplishes that goal beautifully in the short term, and may in many cases actually protect me by reducing my chances of encountering a bear again.


By now, you may note, the presence of the bear is no longer relevant to my fear response. The mere thought of a possible future encounter with a forest is enough to activate my fear. A fear response that is future-oriented and active in the absence of direct immediate threat is what we call anxiety. Clearly, then, the ability to learn anxiety by association is a nifty, often useful trick. But it has a downside. My avoidance, in the long run, maintains and “feeds” my anxiety because it prevents me from learning new and benign forest-related associations. Thus my learned anxiety, ironically, inhibits my ability to learn.


Cognitive theorists have identified worry as the cognitive component of anxiety. Research suggests that worrying thoughts tend to focus on areas of potential threat and loss, such as relationships, social, work, financial, and world problems. Thus, worry functions as a cognitive alarm system. “In the same way that fear has been described as a biological alarm system preparing the organism for escape… so worry can be seen [as] a special state of the cognitive system, adapted to anticipate possible future danger.” Our experience of worry (cognitive anxiety) is enabled by the unique capacity of our minds to envision clearly a range of future events. Worry thus operates like a computer prediction model, positing aversive events or outcomes in order to search for solutions in advance, allowing us to prepare and avoid being taken by surprise.

Again here, the adaptive worry system can be hacked or subverted by various external and internal circumstances. For example, a highly worry-prone person may repeatedly envision catastrophic events that inevitably fail to materialise (because catastrophes are rare). Over time, the person may mistakenly come to believe that the worrying, in fact, prevents the catastrophes from happening—a common cognitive error whereby correlation is taken to imply causation. As a consequence, the person may then become increasingly more “committed” to constant worry. Chronic, heightened levels of worry over time may corrode mental and physical health.  


To psychologists, then, anxiety is at the core of an adaptive, protective system. At the same time, the capacity for anxiety carries a price, a downside, as do all capacities and adaptations. Under certain conditions, the anxiety system may malfunction and produce highly debilitating and disruptive anxiety disorders. What we know about anxiety, though, means that even if we had a magic wand that could eliminate totally your ability to feel anxiety, we would not want to use it. An inability to feel anxiety would be akin to an inability to feel pain. Pain isn’t pleasant, but it provides us with information that is often essential for our physical survival and psychological integrity. As with pain, we are well-advised to listen to anxiety first, rather than seek to immediately deny, avoid, or eliminate it.

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Corona Virus Update

Corona Virus Update

Should you stop going to the gym?

Let’s be real: Gyms don’t necessarily conjure up thoughts of extreme cleanliness—despite staffs’ best efforts. And now, with the growing coronavirus outbreak, it’s easy to start feeling extra anxious around shared gym equipment and communal locker rooms.

It’s with good reason, of course: According to the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, there have been more than 105,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) worldwide, with more than 500 of those cases in the United States. And, while some local governments are taking measures to help prevent further spread of the virus—like recommending people work from home or asking those in large cities to limit mass transit—there are still lots of unanswered questions about what is (and isn’t) safe during an outbreak.

Case in point: Working out at your favourite gym or fitness studio. While getting your blood pumping certainly has its benefits to stave off illness and relieve stress (uh, both extremely relevant right now), there’s still some concern about whether you can safely take a class or if you should try out some at-home workouts. Here’s what you need to know about breaking a sweat while still protecting yourself from coronavirus.

What’s your risk of picking up coronavirus at the gym?

To understand your risk of contracting coronavirus, you need to first understand how the virus spreads: According to the CDC, coronavirus (aka, SARS-CoV-2—COVID-19 is the name of the illness associated with it) is mainly spread directly from person-to-person, usually via close contact (within six feet), through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The virus is also spread indirectly, passing from person to person through contact with surfaces that have been touched by those infected.

Gyms in particular offer both direct and indirect transmission, Philip Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor in the department of pathology at New York University, tells Health. “You can see the dangers imposed by a place like that on an ordinary basis—you’re dealing with hundreds of people over a day,”he says, adding that the risk of getting sick can increase with an outbreak like coronavirus.


Of course, your odds of contracting coronavirus also depend largely on where you live in relation to confirmed cases, says Tierno. In general, just like other public spots, the gym could easily house coronavirus germs—and that risk obviously rises as more cases of coronavirus are identified in a specific area. “Any place where large numbers of people congregate at any one time over a period of time, allows them to shed their microorganisms or germs on various places,” he says. That means anyone infected (including those who don’t even know it), could leave their germs on dumbbells, bands, cardio equipment, and even door handles at the gym. And according to Tierno, these germs can survive for days, if equipment isn’t properly cleaned.


What can you do to decrease your risk of contracting coronavirus?

The best way to avoid coronavirus germs might sound simple, but it’s effective: Wash your hands—and keep washing them. “That’s the key to this whole process,” Tierno says. Before you go to the gym, halfway through, when you leave—make sure you scrub with soap and water, especially if you’re going to touch food after-ward or you know you touch your face often. You also want to skip high-fiving your neighbour after a tough set and maybe throw them a thumbs-up instead.

While individuals’ biggest shield from the disease is hand washing, gyms and studios across the country have also taken extra steps to keep their spaces extra clean. Countless gyms and studios, including YMCA, Peninsula Recreation Centre, Goodlife Health Clubs and Anytime Studios (to name a few), have sent around emails telling clients of the extra precautions they’re taking to keep their studios clean—mainly, spending more time wiping down equipment and encouraging others to do the same. They also remind clients and trainers to frequently wash hands and stay home when sick.

But the responsibility of sanitizing machines isn’t only on gym staff—Tierno adds that you should make sure to wipe down your own equipment before and after every use. And while your gym may have disposable wipes available, it’s not a bad idea to carry around a set of your own—especially since you’ll be sure that they meet the CDC and EPA’s guidelines for approved products to kill coronaviruses.


Should you keep working out, or avoid the gym altogether?

The answer is ultimately up to you, but skipping a workout isn’t necessarily the answer. “When the words virus, disease, and transmission are thrown around, a normal response is to want to burrow into the couch and resurface in a few months,” says Jordan Metzl, MD sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and author of The Exercise Cure. “Despite that initial desire, it’s extremely important to take care of your body and mind. This includes good sleep habits, healthy nutrition, and regular exercise.”

Of course, Dr. Metzl notes that, especially during outbreaks, it’s important to keep aware and use extra precautions (a crowded marathon may not be your best bet right now), keeping up your normal workouts is extremely valuable from a health perspective. “Overall, I want my patients to keep moving every day,” he says. “This keeps the body and immune system primed and ready to fight infection, which is extremely important for everyone.” Erica Lubetkin, a licensed mental health practitioner at Tru Whole Care in New York City, agrees that exercise can be especially beneficial right now. “Exercising can help regulate the autonomic nervous system and keep it in balance, reducing stress,” she tells Health.

If signing up for a class or heading to the gym for a workout puts you in panic mode, consider doing a workout at home or head outside for some sweat. Just remember it’ll do the body (and mind!) some good and know that your best defence from coronavirus is all in your hands—literally. “The biggest problem is fear,” says Tierno. “People don’t realize there is something they can do. But you can wash your hands. It seems silly, but the principle is that you wash your hands so that you can use them to eat or prior to touching your face. That will go a long way.”

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

Is it safe to keep active despite gym closures

Stricter social distancing measures have been announced today, which will see all non-essential services including gyms close across New South Wales and Victoria by Tuesday 24 March 2020. With safety as our number one priority, Fitness Australia continues to follow the guidelines set out by the state and federal governments.

We understand that outdoor exercise is still permitted with self-distancing measures being adhered to – including ensuring a 1.5m distance between all people. Fitness Australia CEO Barrie Elvish tells Australians that it is still safe to exercise outdoors provided social distancing measures were in place.

“Exercise is still safe. The great outdoors is still safe with social distancing in place. Moving your regular training sessions outside will ensure you can still keep your regular routine while protecting yourself during this time,” Mr Elvish said. Mr Elvish said Personal Trainers (PTs) registered with Fitness Australia hold the scope of practice to deliver outdoor training safely as they adhere to the Outdoor Training Guidelines, which have been updated to include COVID-19 restrictions.

“People are still encouraged to train with their trainer outside. If your trainer is registered with Fitness Australia then they adhere to the relevant guidelines to ensure the safe delivery of outdoor training sessions,” Mr Elvish said. “Fitness Australia is providing its members, including more than 19,000 personal trainers, comprehensive information to give them every opportunity to run their sessions safely outdoors.”

Fitness Australia provides a range of information on their website fitness.org.au for both PTs and people who are looking to find a registered PT who can deliver outdoor training.

Physical exercise and the vital role it plays in a person’s health and mental well-being has never been more important than now – a time of uncertainty, isolation and increased anxiety.

As an industry, Fitness Australia believes gyms should be classified under the essential services category given their important role in managing and maintaining mental health and overall well-being, and we will be continuing to advocate the government regarding this.

“In our push to see this recognised we are working to ensure that all our members continue to comply with relevant guidelines and recommendations as they continue to evolve,” Mr Elvish said.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure people keep active and above all else, ensure they are safe.
“As we continue to work together as an industry, the health and well-being of all gym operators, employees and their members remains our top priority in all operational decisions during this time.”
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