Can anxiety be GOOD for you
Like many women, LIZ JONES feels her life”s blighted by the constant niggle of insecurity. But new research raises a fascinating question…
A Christmas party invitation plops on my doormat. I open it, dread seeping from every pore. ‘Dress: festive. Attendance: not optional. Fun: guaranteed.’
Oh, God! I hate this time of year. The pressure to be seen to be having a good time. The conversing with colleagues. The confinement with relatives.
What for others means a time of relaxation, catching up and companionship, for me just becomes another source of a very modern, very prevalent disease: anxiety.
Christmas fear: Liz Jones hates this time of year because it always makes her feel stressed and anxious (posed by model)
Anxiety has played a huge, starring role in my life. It has meant I have desperately overcompensated. I have always tried to look my best, turn up early, try harder, worry all night beforehand and then wake up in a cold sweat, desperate to cover all the bases.
My feeling has always been that everything is bound to go wrong, so I have to be the best and look my best to have any chance of success or survival.
A gnawing fear has been the bane of my life, ever since I was five years old, too anxious to walk into the playground on my own in case I was knocked down by an older child.
I have seen numerous therapists to try to help me deal with it, but the fear creeps back like a damp stain. It’s something I wrestle with every day — even with small things, such as picking up the phone.
But new research has shown that the enemy within, the scourge of my life and the lives of many others, can not only be beneficial but can help us reach the top, to succeed, even excel.
Without it, we would all be very mediocre. But the crucial point is that scientists have now discovered there are two very different types of anxiety. One is Challenge Stress, the other is Threat Stress. The first is good for us, it’s the one that helps us achieve. The second is very bad indeed.
While we might think the term ‘stress’ is a modern malaise, without it, early human beings would never have survived. Put simply, fear causes adrenaline to soar and our heart rate increases so that we can either run away, or stay and fight.
Not all anxiety is bad: “Challenge stress” is good because it helps us achieve
Worry, or being scared, leads to the hypothalamus (a part of the brain) telling the pituitary gland to release a hormone which, in turn, tells the adrenal gland to get busy. Which it does, secreting even more hormones to send the respiratory, heart and other systems into overdrive.
One of these chemicals is cortisol, which is found in the bloodstream of people who are very stressed (those engaged in battle in a war zone, say). So, anxiety can mean we are at our peak of performance: sharp and focused. Just look at the face of an athlete, poised on the starting blocks, to see how anxiety is necessary for us all not to slope along in a contented meander. This is Challenge Stress.
But if anxiety is not dissipated by action or rationalisation, or fulfilling the ‘challenge’ about which we have been anxious, then it can cause physical and psychiatric damage.
This is when stress becomes counter-productive and when anxiety tips into long-term, irrational fear. It is this next step that cripples us, makes us frozen. This is Threat Stress.
It is simple to tell which sort you have. If you are merely excited by a party invitation, a feeling that soon goes away, then it is Challenge Stress. If you have a sleepless night, butterflies in your stomach, you go over the top with preparations, then once at the party can’t wait to leave, it is Threat Stress — and I have never left home without this feeling.
Of course, there are sceptics whose response is that we should all just pull ourselves together, much as the depressive is told to ‘just jolly well cheer up’.
But now us fuss-budgets have finally been vindicated because scientists who mapped the brain have proved that Threat Stress, the bad sort, is due to a chemical imbalance that has become ‘ingrained’.
Experts believe that the scared have a constant activation of the fear response (known as the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis), which we cannot switch off. Yes! Finally someone understands that no amount of rationalisation will prevent me from turning up at the airport four hours before take-off.
Why do some of us go through life with these challenges while others breeze through Children who are abused, or have suffered some sort of trauma are more likely to be fearful in later life. It is not just a learned experience, but a sort of forging of negative synapses.
TIME TO WORRY
The average Briton wastes 36 minutes a day worrying – which equates to nine days every year
Genes, or faults in our DNA, are also implemented: I had a very fearful mother who never encouraged me to be brave, but was always worried something would happen to me, and wherever I went, always made me call and let the phone ring three times to let her know I had arrived and was still alive.
So will it change anything if we now know we not only are stressed, but we have the wrong type of stress Well, it might help to explain why stress causes so much illness, costing the UK economy an estimated six million working days a year.
I get terrible migraines when a crisis is over (I get one every Friday night when my working week is done), and have painful shoulders due to being tense, always. Those who suffer from Threat Stress don’t process food properly, leading to bowel problems and bloating.
But the main drawback of too much anxiety is that we do not enjoy anything. I am always happiest when I return to my flat and bolt the door. This is no way to live, surely Even on my wedding day, I worried about the following: my husband falling off the balcony, my mum being able to get up the stairs, the final bill, my great niece suffocating in her room, and on and on and on.
I have also long wondered why, when I become stressed, I tip so quickly into anger and hysteria. In Keswick in the Lake District last year, I was driving around, unable to find a shop. I was already stressed by being in a new place, but, because I was late, I became more and more stressed, and almost couldn’t see as a result of a mixture of rage and hysteria. Again, new research has thrown light on this phenomenon.
Also active when we are stressed is the amygdala, the part of our brain that regulates anger. We cannot think straight, enveloped in what used to be called a ‘red mist’. It is a self-perpetuating vicious cycle.
But those of us who simply suffer from nerves, or butterflies, or shyness, should take heart because it’s not all bad.
Sacked: Liz Jones couldn”t cope with the pressure of being editor of Marie Claire magazine
In fact, I find it encouraging that many people in top professions are not laid-back, chilled, super-confident types. Remember that only those who feel anxiety will ever make it to the top in difficult fields.
Recently, a surgeon told me: ‘I had a patient this morning who asked me if I ever get nervous before performing an operation. I told her: “If I didn’t, I should stop doing operations altogether.”
‘Anxiety focuses your mind and makes sure you never treat an operation as routine… I’d be very concerned about a laid-back surgeon. I’d assume they simply treated patients as pieces of meat. For me, the day I stop feeling nervous is the day I stop operating.’
Stress equals focus; the key is to manage your stress levels. So how could I master this simple but life-changing trick
More from Liz Jones…
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LIZ JONES MOANS: If that baby starts bawling, I”ll put it in the overhead locker
Inside the X Factory: This year”s series has been tainted by scandals over drugs and bullying, but that”s not what shocked LIZ JONES when she went backstage at the show
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LIZ JONES MOANS: Doctor, I”ve got a bad case of Competitive Illness…
VIEW FULL ARCHIVE
The advice from the U.S. scientists who discovered the two forms of worry is that those at the top of their game need to know when to switch off and do something different after work, something I never do. And how many of us will still be staring at our BlackBerrys come Christmas Day
The problem comes when we use crutches instead: I know so many women who live for that six o’clock glass of chilled white wine. My sister-in-law was very shy and fearful and used alcohol to self-medicate, which ultimately killed her in her mid-50s a year ago.
My brother, who died in January from pneumonia complications, was bright but very shy. He became a recluse, unable to cope with the pressure, not just of performing on stage (he’d been a musician), but of interacting even with family members. Their fear destroyed them both.
When I landed a super-scary editorship of a magazine, I did two things: I read the self-help book Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway, and swallowed St John’s Wort capsules like Smarties.
Neither worked. I was terrified of the sales figures, board meetings, the staff, the celebrities we photographed. In the end, I was sacked as I tried too hard and pushed too many boundaries (my anti-skinny models campaign lost advertising revenue).
When I was sacked, I wished I’d been more like the confident and relaxed editors of rival magazines. I asked one, who, given her magazine was haemorrhaging readers, was obviously hopeless, how it was all going. ‘Oh, great, yeah, I’m off skiing for a month.’
But what all this new research has shown me is that without stress, nothing great is achieved; we don’t stretch ourselves because we don’t really care.
My plan It’s all about balance. We have to accept we might fail. You can take sedatives or antidepressants, but hypnotherapist Philip Naniewski gave me two useful tools: a positive mantra when I feel doom approaching (mine is ‘Calm, Confident, Capable’), and to picture a good outcome, to banish the scene where disaster unfolds.
I was also told to practise having only positive thoughts for, at first, an hour, then two hours, then all day, which is incredibly hard but works. I try to breathe more deeply rather than pant using only the top of my lungs.
I also accept that fear has got me where I am workwise, even if the cost to my personal life has been great because I was never bold enough to phone anyone, or make a move, or even accept a dinner party invitation.
But it is a comfort to not feel so much like a complete failure, knowing that if you harness stress like a surgeon, there is no limit to what you can achieve.
And I pray for even better understanding of what happens in the brain so that the Christmas party is no longer terrifying, but could be a pleasure for the first time in my life. The time when I may no longer regard mistletoe as Kryptonite.