If you have a posh enough car, it has an alarm. If someone tries to break in, it makes a loud sound to warn them off and alert others to the problem.
In the same way, anxiety can be a useful alert system – when there’s a threat that requires the fight or flight response, adrenaline surges through the body in order to make us run faster or fight if necessary.
However, if there’s a fault with our car alarm, it will also sound when the wind blows, when a cat runs under it, when someone walks past or for absolutely no reason what so-ever!
If anxiety works in overdrive, it is set off, for example, when you think about going outside, or when you’ve been invited to a party, or if a compulsion has not been carried out correctly, or…for no clear reason at all.
Anxiety is terrifying because adrenaline surges through our body as though we are experiencing a threat on our life.
Reacting to what the anxiety is telling us
We can take the analogy a bit further, the first few times your car alarm goes off, you dash out to check, thinking someone is stealing your car.
When we feel anxious, we assume it’s an accurate feeling for the threat posed so react appropriate, usually by running away or avoiding the situation. For example, if agoraphobic, we stop going outside, if we have social anxiety, we stop socialising, if we have obsessive compulsive thoughts about switching the light switch exactly 17 times, we have to switch is exactly 17 times.
Or, in my case, I developed a fear of fat and of putting on weight so felt anxious around food, this combination led to anorexia. So what started as a simple fight or flight response getting out of control, led to a complicated mental illness and years of difficulty.
Both, the car alarm and anxiety, can be distressing and negatively impact those around us no matter how hard we try to hide it.
Unfortunately, by the time we’ve realised the anxiety is not an appropriate response to the situation, the behaviour has become a habit.
If our car alarm goes off multiple times we turn it off—unfortunately, we cannot do this once anxiety has “gone off” too many times.
The good news
However, take it another step—when we take our car to the mechanic, they check out the wiring, maybe replace or re-set some of the workings.
Here’s the good news—we can re-wire our brains, how great is that?! We can re-train our neural pathways so that we react with an appropriate level of response. This may take a long time but it is possible with the right therapy and a lot of perseverance!