The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week is ‘anxiety’, an issue many HR professionals have experience with. In the first of a two-part series, Evelina Dzimanaviciute explains why anxiety is not what you think it is, and calls into question some common wellbeing practices.
In a fast-paced, uncertain world, anxiety is part of modern life, contributing to an increasing mental health crisis. According to the ONS, 37% of women and 30% of men say they are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety.
Anxiety can be a debilitating and all-consuming emotional state, destroying our health, preventing us from making the most of opportunities and limiting our performance. Around 4-8% of the population in the UK are medically diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, phobias and other anxiety conditions. Young people are affected the most, and women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed than men.
It doesn’t have to be this way, however. The prevalence of anxiety as an illness is a relatively new phenomenon, and before we rush to diagnose and medicate, we should look into what anxiety really is, and what can be done to regain control over our health and wellbeing.
Anxiety is closely linked to fear and stress – but what’s the difference?
Fear is an emotional response to a real, present threat. Stress is a physical, neurobiological reaction to threat and danger. Anxiety is both an emotional and physical response to a perceived, imagined or anticipated threat. When we are anxious, we are experiencing emotional turmoil as well as a physiological stress response, but without the actual threat or danger.
Research shows that anxiety also exists in other organisms too, but humans are unique in that due to our brain complexity, we can experience anxiety and fear despite the distance to threat in space and time.
Anxiety might be an evolutionary alert system, warning our body of potential threats and failures, in order to encourage a proactive approach to addressing those dangers. According to evolutionary psychology, the role of emotions is to help us automatically respond to environmental triggers and adjust our habits and behaviours in response to external events and our surroundings.
Fearful emotions activate our flight-or-fight response, can sharpen our senses, improve cognition and enhance the physical performance required to overcome an immediate challenge at hand. This has a competitive advantage for our survival.
From this perspective, anxiety is an evolutionary masterpiece, a gift and a superpower. So why are we calling it a disorder and labelling people with it, as if it is a mental illness?
The problem is not the person, but the environment. Many people claim work to be the main cause of unhappiness in their life, with employee engagement and wellbeing are the lowest in the last few decades, and stress is at a new all-time high, according to State of the Global Workplace: 2022 Gallup report.
The way we live and work in the modern world is so far from the way we have evolved to thrive over millions of years. Many conditions that are being given diagnostic labels are normal, human response to unhealthy environments. Anxiety is one of them.
Anxiety is overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system, and the inability to self-regulate our emotions and physiology. It is not simply a maladaptation of our nervous system, as we’re often told. It is part of being human.
What makes anxiety so common and unbearable is a combination of stressful, high-pressure environments and poor self-regulation skills. Put simply:
High pressure + poor self-regulation = anxiety
High pressure is not always physical and environmental, i.e. due to workload and deadlines. It could also stem from our own high expectations and social pressures to conform and perform. If we feel inadequate, not worthy, less able or not good enough in whatever way, that adds a lot of pressure to fit in and belong, causing social anxiety.
There are many reasons why, over time, specific ways of feeling, thinking and behaving become our default mode of operating. It becomes a pattern embedded into our nervous system, a neurobiological blueprint of a familiar place to go to in response to a familiar trigger or mental association.
Many other factors can exacerbate the symptoms, for example high levels of stress, hormonal imbalances, poor vagal tone, unhealthy levels of physical activity (too much or not enough), lack of physical touch, and even unhealthy gut and skin microbiome.
The worst enemy of all is the physical comfort of a modern lifestyle. We live in a relatively safe environment, which doesn’t allow us to build physical resilience in response to threats. This in turn has a huge impact on our ability to self-regulate. In contrast, cognitive overload, the pace of change and uncertainty activate the same neural circuits responsible for generating a sense of fear.
The stresses and pressures we experience are very new to us, from an evolutionary point of view; processed food, high levels of chemicals and toxins, cognitive overload, and too many expectations on individuals instead of collective responsibility all play a part.
With the advance in medicine and innovative treatments, many illnesses are curable. Even deadly cancer now has more people recovering than dying from it. When you hurt yourself, when you break a leg, or when you have an infection, there is an expectation that you will heal and recover.
Why, then, should it be different for mental illness? Why are we keep telling people to live with their poor mental health, and learn to ‘manage it’ for the rest of our lives, instead of aiming to recover from it?
Unfortunately, it is beneficial for big pharma to translate a variety of unpleasant, unwanted human emotions into diagnostic labels, as it creates revenue streams and dependencies on medication for those who are seeking relief from suffering.
While the role of anti-depressants and anxiety medication has place and value as a temporary relief, we should consider addressing real, underlying causes instead of medicating the symptoms for the rest of our lives.
Anxiety is not a mental illness, however. It is a temporary state of being, in response to the environment, our physical body balance and cognitive thinking patterns. Anxiety is what you feel and experience – not who you are.
The first step towards redefining our relationship with it, therefore, is to stop saying ‘I AM anxious’. Change it to ‘I FEEL anxious’. In a fast-paced, always changing and stressful world, anxiety becomes part of our lives, but it should never be what defines us. We can easily learn how to regulate our emotions and responses, while also building more supportive and safer environments at work.