Right next to the Brussels ring road, rabbits are quietly grazing. Every once in a while, they look up, stop munching and watch. Suddenly, a big bird flies by. In a second, all the rabbits are gone, and one can just catch a glimpse of a white bunny tail disappearing into the bushes. Fight or flee, we are all ready for it: rabbits and humans. In case of danger, our body tenses up and we prepare to struggle or run. We don’t even have the time to think: we feel it running through our veins. Our pulse rate goes up. Our hands are sweaty. We breathe faster. What puts us in this state of alert is fear in front of a danger: anxiety.
THE POSITIVE SIDE: Just imagine someone who has no idea of looming danger. In everyday life, it is normal and even positive to experience fear when we are at risk: if we are alone in a dark alley at night, or if a stranger behaves threateningly. Anxiety will ring this little alarm bell that will put our senses on alert. We may notice things we wouldn’t have spotted before. And we are ready to protect ourselves or run. The physiological aspects of anxiety even prepare us for this flight from danger.
A REASON: But what if there is no visible danger? We have all the symptoms mentioned before: fast pulse, cold sweat, out of breath; but there is no stranger, and no dark alley. We are just sitting at our desk, in front of the computer, as usual. Or ready to go to work, or about to take the children to school – life as usual, except that there is this knot in the stomach, tightness in the throat, dry mouth. Sometimes, we even get the feeling that our life is at risk.
PANIC ATTACK: This terrible sense of fatal danger looming, under the form of a complete physical collapse, is called a panic attack. It leads many people to the emergency room. Once the results of medical exams have come back normal, they are not reassured; they don’t understand what has happened to them and they are still anxious. They were anxious in the first place: this is why they had the panic attack.
NEGATIVE ASPECTS: Anxiety can take different forms: it can be acute, as in panic attacks, or it can be chronic and develop into psychosomatic illnesses, such as stomach ulcers or asthma; it can trigger avoidance behaviours such as social phobias. People who suffer from social phobias avoid encounters and public places, and it can hinder them from making friends.
BANISHING ANXIETY: The true definition of anxiety is fear without a reason. If we suffer from anxiety, be it acute, as in panic attacks, or chronic, as in social phobias, we should seek professional help. A psychologist or a psychiatrist may help us disentangle our feelings – something quite real is probably bothering us, deep down. We may be confronted by a difficult situation, which stirs up bad memories from the past.
Help will certainly come under the form of psychotherapy. Psychotherapy can take different routes: it can try to lift a veil on our deepest feelings, such as in psychodynamic psychotherapy, and it can also help us develop healthier modes of relating to our lives, to our body, to our thoughts, as in cognitive behavioural therapy. The most important point is that we need to feel good in the care of our psychotherapist.
In some cases, a doctor – family doctor or a psychiatrist – may need to first prescribe some medication. It may be necessary, for example, to treat the depression which was the real source of panic attacks. In any case, if we suffer from anxiety without a valid reason for it, we should seek help – because it is available and we can get better.
Community Help Service is a non-profit organisation with a professional staff of psychologists, psychiatrists and educational specialists providing information, support and mental health services to anyone in Belgium, regardless of nationality, who needs help and prefers to speak English: www.chsbelgium.org