Many (if not most) people are challenged by uncertainty and find that it causes anxiety. Persons affected by the Fees Must Fall movement could be experiencing periods of uncertainty (e.g. when will we go back to class, what if I get arrested during a peaceful protest). Here is what you should know about anxiety
Anxiety (stress) can be helpful. It gives you the kick you need to perform well. Too little or too much, however, is not helpful and decreases your productivity and performance.
The stress response system
If the body perceives a situation as stressful, the hypothalamus in the brain is activated which in turn triggers the pituitary gland and the adrenal medulla. Short term stress (not dangerous) is modulated by the fight or flight response (Sympathomedullary Pathway) while long term stress (can be harmful) is managed by the Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) system.
The fight or flight response is beautifully designed. For an increase in anxiety relatedsymptoms (as regulated by the sympathetic nervous system) there is an automatic counter-reaction to reduce the anxiety related symptoms once the perceived threat has been eliminated (parasympathetic nervous system). This short term response is not harmful and is the basis on which exposure therapy is based: to learn that anxiety is manageable and not permanent.
Hypothalamic Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) system
A stressor activates the Hypothalamic Pituitary Axis where the hypothalamus stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete a hormone called ACTH. ACTH in turn stimulates the adrenal glands to produce another hormone known as corticosteroid (cortisol). Cortisol is responsible to supply the body with steady supplies of blood sugar (energy) to help a person cope with prolonged stress. The trouble with this long term stress response is that it suppresses the immune system which can be harmful.
Anxiety is a normal physical reaction to a perceived threat. Thus to manage the physical reaction, one needs to address the perceived threat.
Differentiate between objective and perceived danger
- Objective danger
E.g. Being in a volatile situation where there are weapons aimed at you. This can physically hurt you, the anxiety response is appropriate and could save your life.
- Perceived danger
E.g. Experiencing a distressing thought challenging your resources e.g. “What if I don’t finish my final year”. This thought can’t physically hurt you. You can try to change the way you think so that the anxiety response is not prolonged.
Challenge the way you perceive threat
A friend, leader, or psychologist could help you to challenge the way that you think about a perceived threat. The aim of this activity would help you to identify things you can and cannot control, problem solve to identify resources and alternatives, draw from previous success to highlight that although a situation is unpleasant you are more capable than you think. Some questions they may use:
- What about this worry is so bad?
- If it had to be true, how would I cope with it?
- If it had to be true, what resources would be available to me?
- How is worrying about this helping me?
Trick your body into relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is a useful tool where you systematically tense and relax the muscles in your body. There are many scripts available online either as pdf’s, Youtube links, or applications on your smart phone. A comprehensive description could be found here.
Another method you could use to help your body relax, is by changing your breathing. The focus is not so much on the deep breath in, but on holding the breath and exhaling very slowly. Breathe2Relax is a useful smartphone app to teach you the principles, alternatively you can try this link.
For more help on dealing with anxiety, contact me to set up an appointment.