Why am I experiencing anxiety for no reason? - and what to do to calm it down
One of the most frustrating things about experiencing anxiety is when it appears out of nowhere. There’s no reason for you to feel the way you do but yet you still feel yourself panicking and freaking out.
Logic tells you that there is no reason for the emotions you are experiencing but this doesn’t help the panic that is building up… causing your breathing and heart rate to quicken, your palms to go sweaty and your chest to tighten. That impending feeling of doom that washes over you like a tidal wave and feels like you’re going to drown.
In some cases, it can go beyond just feeling anxious and lead to a full blown panic attack.
And in this heightened anxious state, the physical symptoms can be misinterpreted. Heart palpitations can be mistaken for symptoms of a heart attack; breathlessness and feeling faint can feel like you’re collapsing or dying, and the racing intrusive thoughts make you question whether you are losing control of their mind.
In fact, the thought that it IS a heart attack or you are dying has crossed your mind because there’s no other reason to explain this intense feeling.
But here’s the thing… anxiety isn’t rational.
Its role isn’t to be rational and logic.
The sole purpose of experiencing anxiety is to keep you alive. It’s a survival mechanism.
The limbic parts of your brain, which have been around since the beginning of mankind, helps you to react to perceived dangers in the environment. When your limbic brain perceives danger it activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing anxiety symptoms such as:
Increased heart rate
Breathlessness (which can leadto a panic attack)
Stomach issues (cramps, IBS/Crohns flares, diarrhoea etc…)
The sudden feeling of doom.
The idea behind this is to make you react quickly by choosing to fight, flight or freeze.
Let’s take it back to ‘caveman times…’
When we were moments away from being eaten by a Sabre Tooth Tiger or at risk of being attacked by another tribe, we wouldn’t have wanted our brain to spent time rationalising… to take a moment before the anxiety kicked in in order to weigh up all of the options. By the time we would have done this and come to the conclusion that we were in danger we would have found ourselves with a spear through us or missing a limb and about to become some animal’s dinner.
Having that anxiety kick in immediately allows us the best chance of getting out of the situation alive… by preparing us to fight, run away as fast as we can (flight) or freeze, hoping the danger hasn’t spotted us (freeze).
And if we were in the above situations we would be grateful for the anxiety we experienced, it would (hopefully) have gotten us to safety and then we would have been able to carry on with our lives: happily looking for some berries to go with the side of woolly mammoth we killed the day before and sitting around the fire with our tribe telling stories and celebrating surviving another day.
You’ve come a long way from living in the Caveman Era. But your limbic brain and nervous system still works in the same way it did back then.
Its purpose is to keep you alive and so it will try and alert you to every single danger that it perceives. But instead of Sabre Tooth Tigers and the fear of an enemy, your brain can cause a flurry of panic if you’ve got a deadline to meet, if you know we have an uncomfortable conversation with someone coming up or in some cases it can cause anxiety around the need in to drive to the supermarket.
And although the things that stress you out and cause us anxiety aren’t life or death situations, your survival brain doesn’t know this.
But why am I experiencing anxiety for no reason?
You can also experience anxiety for no reason at all. Life seems to be going great and BAM! anxiety hits.
It’s important note that not all of the things that cause anxiety are obvious or observable in your daily life.
I have many clients who tell me of the frustrations they feel when they going about their daily life and then anxiety just hits.
‘I should be happy but then I have this looming sense of panic and dread in the back of my mind…’ (Kara, Payroll manager, London)
‘I’m constantly on edge, feeling like something bad is going to happen…’ (Karen, housewife, Essex)
‘I feel trapped with nowhere to go but yet I don’t know what it is that I’m wanting to get away from…’ (Tania, Teacher, Liverpool).
This causes feelings of confusion, frustration and even sometimes anger.
In your rational mind you know that there is no real reason for you to feel the way you do. It doesn't matter how many times you have this conversation with yourself... you still feel that panic and overwhelm!
Although there might not be an immediate trigger, there is a reason for this…
Full stress bucket
This happens because overtime your stresses and worries can build up. It builds up in what I call your metaphorical ‘stress bucket’ (click here to learn more about the stress bucket). Fortunately we have a way of emptying our bucket which is through sleep.
However, anxiety can negatively affect your sleep causing you to not effectively empty your stress bucket and over time it will build up and build up…
Eventually it will overflow and this causes you to snap over the slightest thing, panic, feel overwhelmed and even suffer with anxiety and panic attacks. And if this continues over a long period of time it can lead to an emotional breaktime and even burnout.
The problem is that the more your bucket fills up, the more you’re in your negative survival brain. This means you are on the lookout for more dangers and you notice more negative things (this can happen on a unconscious level), which leads to the bucket filling up even more.
It’s a vicious loop!
And ruminating about anxiety and getting frustrated isn’t helping! It’s only filling up your stress bucket further... The more we think about anxiety and what it's doing to us and how paralysing it is, the stronger it grows.
So how do you cope with unexpected anxiety?
Reframe your focus by looking for the good.
Instead of focusing on the anxiety and why it’s suddenly appeared, focus on the things that are going well. Think about your strengths, what has been positive in your day so far and the things you are looking forward to that are coming up.
This can seem tricky to start with and you may well roll your eyes at me and think ‘Geez Nicole, my anxiety is still here so that’s no help!’ But hear me out…
By intentionally shifting your attention to your strengths and the good things, you’re actually making your anxiety weaker. You're also not filling up your stress bucket with negative thoughts. And as you practise doing this more and more, it will become a habit and you’ll learn to not give anxiety any of conscious energy.
Guided breathing exercises
You can reduce your anxiety and stress levels naturally by activating your body’s relaxation response. This activates your parasympathetic nervous system (that works in the opposite way to the sympathetic nervous system discussed earlier). There are so many different breathing exercises you can try – you can find thousands on YouTube.
A simple one is to breathe in for the count of 4, hold and then breathe out for 6.
Another one I love is the ‘Physiological Sigh’ which Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at the University of Standford uses. He explains it as taking ‘ two inhales, followed by an extended exhale' (check out the video here that explains this exercise in more detail).
Focus on your surroundings
Distract yourself from your negative thoughts by shifting your focus from your anxiety to your surroundings. Scan the room and name the things that you see around you. If you are able to say what you see out loud then do that as well and you can couple this with a positive affirmation such as ‘And I am safe.’
So for example… ‘Blue photoframe… I am safe… coffee cup…I am safe… grey two-seater chair…I am safe.’
It’s a good idea to practice these tools regularly so that you have them to hand when the anxiety does hit.
Do things that relax you
You may want to learn relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). PMR exercises help you to lower your overall tension and stress levels, and help you relax when you are feeling anxious. They can also be beneficial in helping you to reduce physical problems such as stomach pains and headaches, as well as improving your sleep.
Guided relaxations and mindfulness activities are great too but you can also focus on a hobby that you enjoy to distract your mind from the symptoms you are experiencing.
Go for a walk, do yoga or some light stretches. These all help minimise your day-to-day stresses and release feel good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins, which help you to relax and cope when things feel challenging.
Staying sufficiently hydrated and nourished.
When you’re hungry or thirsty, your survival brain kicks in (food and water are basic needs so if you’re not getting enough your body will think that it’s going through famine and drought). When your brain is in survival mode your anxiety will heighten as it is on the lookout for danger.
Limit caffeine and alcohol
Both of these are stimulants which will increase your heart rate and activate your survival brain. They also impact your sleep and overtime can make your anxiety worse.
Talk with a therapist.
If you feel overwhelmed by worries, you don’t have to go through this alone.
Contrary to common belief, you don’t need to unpack and delve into the problem – and sometimes there isn’t an easily identifiable trigger for the anxiety you're experiencing, it can just be a culmination of lots of different things.
Solution Focused Hypnotherapy can help you break the cycle of anxiety and help you navigate tough feelings.
By working together, we can get you out of your irrational survival brain and help you feel more in control. We focus on the 'not so' silly things in your life, the things that matter to you, which literally rewires your brain and changes that anxiety template that you are currently working from.
If you are struggling to manage your anxiety and are looking for a gentle, effective way then get in touch to book a free informal chat.