Knowing your anxiety matters: It’s not there to protect you

Sergiy Danylov, Ph.D. in Neuroscience December 30, 2022


Have you ever wondered what anxiety really is? The WHO has it that anxiety is a “feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.” Such a classification seems to be an accurate one. However, it does miss one important aspect: anxiety is often a self-imposed symptom that comes from an unduly processed psychological trauma. 

A French philosopher Michel de Montaigne once claimed: “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened”. Anxiety changes human lives by instilling them with a constant feeling of fear that might be completely ungrounded. Even though it is an extremely peculiar feeling, the way toward dealing with it is quite a hackneyed one: you should start by getting to know it.

First, you think it’s fine 

Just like any other emotion, anxiety is a human mind’s natural reaction designed to help us move smoothly through our lives, which are quite often full of unpleasant experiences. Christina Caron from The New York Times claims that “having some anxiety – especially when faced with a stressful situation – isn’t necessarily bad and can actually be helpful.” Of course, grieving after, for example, the death of your loved one is normal; the aftermath of such a tragic event can never go unnoticed.

Nonetheless, claiming that anxiety should be an integral part of our lives isn’t the best approach to dealing with it. For example, Wendy Suzuki (2021), the author of Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion says: “The emotion of anxiety and the underlying physiological stress response evolved to protect us.” Once again, it is good and normal when a person goes through anxiety that has been caused by a particular trigger. Nonetheless, anxiety is mischievous and it has a tendency of setting itself deep into people’s minds, eventually making them think that it’s bad to live without one.

Often accompanied by uncertainty, worry, and fear regarding even the most mundane situations, anxiety might get out of control, letting the fear take advantage of our mind. Anxiety’s “mission to protect” ends up working in a reverse direction. The ultimate sense of fear associated with a particular situation, phenomenon, object, etc. renders us incredibly careful. As a result, we automatically start avoiding the slightest thought that might drive us to think about the things that make us anxious. 

The scientists call this process cognitive avoidant coping, which is nothing else but covering up your problems instead of facing them directly. Günther et al. (2022) claim that: “Cognitive avoidant coping significantly predicted reduced gray matter volume in the bilateral thalamus, whereas vigilant coping was associated with volumetric increases in the bilateral thalamus”. That is, facing one’s anxiety has a positive impact on a person’s mental capabilities. Meanwhile, those fleeing from anxiety, “letting it do its work” suffer from decreased mental capability. Such a behavioural pattern might work just well at first, but it will surely have a detrimental effect in the long run.

What happens next?

A person who has become “used to anxiety” starts tolerating it by trying to avoid it. In simple words, we start living, knowing that anxiety is there (which is bad for us, and we know this) but we reject the need for addressing it. Instead, we embark upon rumination, defined by Sansone and Sansone (2012) as “a form of perseverative cognition that focuses on negative content, generally past and present, and results in emotional distress”. Rumination eventually leads an individual to overreaction to menace, fear of failure, and (quite possibly) a long list of anxiety related disorders.

As a matter of fact, Brown and Ladd (2019) have circumscribed five major stages that everyone ignoring their anxiety is most likely to go through. Hence, tolerating your anxiety as your organism’s response to hypothetical dangers, might lead to such tangible symptoms:

  1. Obsession and an endless thought loop. This is where rumination sets itself in motion by leaving our mind restless, especially about the bad things that could happen to us while there are no solid reasons for the very event to intervene.
  2. Avoidance and ignorance. It is crystal clear that nobody wants something bad to happen to them. Our mind starts blocking the very idea of the negative occurrence and consequently blocks the need for discussing our issues with somebody else. This is where the idea of therapy is being blocked, paving the way for restlessness. 
  3. Overplanning and over controlling. The idea of “having everything under control” sets the human mind in the management mode, characterized by an unwavering urge to control everyone and everything around us. As soon as the “control plan” fails (spoiler: it won’t take long), the irritation and even rage levels are going to do no good to you. 
  4. Restlessness and sleep deprivation. The mental-physical health connection needs no further explanation. Living with unaddressed anxiety eventually leads people to being restless and suffering from insomnia. 
  5. Deteriorated physical health. Having troubles with falling asleep even for two days might lead to some issues with your physical health. Imagine the damage anxiety can do to your physical health through an extended run of sleep deprivation. It can range from cosmetic skin conditions to malignant tumors. For example, a 2016 study of nearly 16,000 UK men and women over 40 found that men suffering from severe anxiety were more than twice as likely to die from cancer as those who didn’t (Jarvis, 2018).

There is definitely a line between rational thinking and planning and a vision of your future corroded by anxiety. Terlizzi and Villarroel (2020) claim that more than 15% of adults in the United States experience symptoms of anxiety that are either mild, moderate or severe every two weeks. Meanwhile, out of almost 41  million adults affected by various anxiety disorders (which are those 40 million) in the US, only 36.9% of them are receiving treatment (ADAA, 2022). People are getting used to living with anxiety and the latter eventually controls the former and not vice versa.

Is there a way out?

Coping with anxiety is a tall order, but it is at the long last it is a feasible task. Regardless of how obvious it might sound, the first thing to do is to acknowledge or detect its presence in your life. Sure, there are cases when anxiety is relatively easy to detect. 

The most vivid ones are those expressed physiologically. For example, tensed muscles may be a sign that your organism is getting ready to get away from danger quickly (Raypole, 2021). However, constantly tensed muscles can result in tension headaches, pains, and migraines, which would be a clear sign of a psychological root to your physiological problems.

Yet, it should be acknowledged that people that don’t want to learn more about their psychological well-being are less likely to relate tensed muscles, stomach pains, headaches, excessive sweating, and many other symptoms to anxiety. Most likely, they would start searching for purely physiological causes. However, anxiety, as a condition, can be broken down into three major components: physiological, emotional, and cognitive.

While the first one is being expressed vividly and thus is easy to detect (yet, not so easy to associate with anxiety), the emotional and cognitive components are extremely hard to be tracked down. Even though a constant feeling of fear or ruminations are saying it directly that there is something bad happening to our mind, people might pass it down as something temporary; something that will pass.

The problem here is that anxiety is quite good at disguise; it might step down for a bit to let you think that everything’s fine. Meanwhile, as long as it remains unaddressed, chronic anxiety disorders are being developed in our brain’s core. Hence, acknowledging your anxiety through efficient testing is actually a way out. Even when you think everything is just fine (especially when it’s not), passing a test once in a while won’t harm you. 

Now, there is one question left: what is to be deemed efficient testing today?

The value of Anima’s approach to anxiety testing

Anima has been designed to reinvent anxiety testing by letting patients undergo neurobiological assessment when- and wherever they feel comfortable to do so. Powered by the eye tracking technology, which has proven to be one of the most efficient psychological assessment tools, Anima focuses on the results’ preciseness, convenience, and confidentiality. 

We wanted to drift away from standardized questionnaires and actually start estimating a neurodynamic condition of brain attention and emotion systems. Of course, Anima cannot be dubbed a clinical diagnostic tool. Mental health disorders can only be diagnosed by licensed health care professionals. However, Anima is a perfect platform to actually define whether you need to see a therapist or not. 

The main aim of Anima is to gain deeper insights into your worries thus making your life decisions better. If you are asking yourself “Am I doing fine?”, several sessions would be more than enough to answer your questions. Based on your result you may enhance your coping strategy. If you have none, Anima is the platform to get one. 

Understand yourself

In most cases, anxiety boils down to a person developing a pathological loop of worrying. This loop is formed by every person’s individual factors that either increase or decrease anxiety. Breaking this vicious circle is possible by getting to know and understand how your current state changes. That is, the one who is trying to deal with anxiety requires reflective feedback, quite profoundly explained by the concept of quantified self. Have you ever wondered why athletes and coaches make detailed notes on nutrition, training sessions, sleep, and other variables that might either bolster or hinder their performance? 

The new information lets them assess how a peculiar experience or a deed from the past impacts their present performance. Mora, Rivera-Pelayo and Mueller (2011) state: “A key aspect in making a reflective process to happen is the presence of triggers”. The problem is that ordinary people, unlike athletes, tend to miss those triggers in everyday life because they don’t embark upon analysis, not to mention the notes. A critical point is the start of the reflection process that leads to the initial return to an experience. Take a look at how it was depicted by Boud et al. back in 1985:

Figure 1.1. The reflection process in context

There is one important aspect to keep in mind here: the quality of the reflection critically depends on the quality of the assessment tool. With Anima, your test result will consist of the data about your current state that is simultaneously assessed with two different approaches:

  • Validated psychometric tests (GAD-7, Spelberger inventory, IES, PTSR, etc.)
  • Psychophysiological tool based on eye tracking test of selective attentional mechanisms reaction analysis. 

Anima brings together these approaches and creates your personal report that helps you define your anxiety level and suggests coping strategies that will work for you. Furthermore, the system’s psychometric scales allow you to assess the possibility of having or developing anxiety related disorders. 

Attentional bias warning

The last thing you need to know Anima is that its attentional bias scale allows you to determine the state of attention control system, defined by two basic human motivational systems:

  • The approach system, which determines the desire to interact and approach everything that can bring pleasure and benefit.
  • Avoidance system, which determines the reactions of avoidance and evasion from the dangerous and threatening stimuli.

It is easy for us to keep in mind and change our behavior in response to any stimulus that activates these systems. Moreover, we are naturally sensitive to evolutionarily significant stimuli. The possibility of encountering danger, such as venomous snakes, will require innate hypervigilance. While it is okay to look around being in a jungle, it is surely a red notice if you keep doing the same while, for example, in your office. This would mean that your evolutionary mechanism has been impacted by anxiety.

People with emotional disorders often find it difficult to deal with situations that cause conflict between the approach and avoidance reactions. For example, maladaptive avoidance behaviors associated with depression and anxiety disorders can lead people to sacrifice participation in activities that are beneficial to them. Therefore, the ability to maintain a balance between attention control systems is an important adaptive trait. 

Emotional disorders, anxiety, trauma, and depression can disrupt this balance and impair switching between tasks. Anima has been developed to let you detect, analyze, and cope with whatever you might find disturbing for you mind.

The bottom line

Anxiety can be dealt with efficiently. One’s willingness to detect and not tolerate its manifestations, albeit not that vivid sometimes,  is the key to launching the process. Anima’s method allows us to deliver test results that are based on deep neurobiological insights gathered by objective data measurement and analysis tools. Coping with anxiety is a complex process and we are here to help anyone who needs our help. This is a multi-tasking psychological assessment tool that will let you: 

  • Match your anxiety level with some occurring events by measuring it several times;
  • Find out whether you are all right;
  • Gain deeper insight into the intricacies or your psychological well-being;
  • Check the effectiveness of interventions (meditations, exercises, therapy, etc).

Also, don’t forget to grab your recommendations on: 

  • The optimal coping strategy that suits you;
  • Getting out of pre-disorder level and refining your overall psychological health;
  • Keeping your mind sharp and clear;

Remember, anxiety is not here to protect you; it is here to confront you by pretending to be your friend at first. Detecting enemies on time means being halfway closer to victory.


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