Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald: Can you ever overcome anxiety?

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Anxiety isn't actually the main problem. Image / NZ Herald
Anxiety isn't actually the main problem. Image / NZ Herald

"I've been diagnosed with anxiety, and put on medication. I've been told it's an illness? Can I ever get over this?"

Anxiety is a universal human experience. It's our emotional alarm system and it exists to warn us of impending danger. It is a highly advanced, highly sensitive system, but unfortunately it is prone to malfunction.

Anxiety is not an illness or a disease in the conventional sense of the word. You aren't born with it and you can't catch it. It is caused by a complex combination of things, including the natural sensitivity of your alarm system, (largely your "amygdala" which is part of the limbic system in the brain) and the events of your life and childhood that you live through. It's heavily influenced by trauma and life circumstances.

And, although this might sound strange, it's not really the anxiety that is the main problem.

The natural, programmed behaviour when we feel fear and anxiety is to avoid. It's the old "fight flight" response. The problem with anxiety arises when it malfunctions. It causes us to be fearful of events that haven't happened yet, and in turn make decisions to avoid them. By avoiding them we never get to challenge or overcome the fear: in our mind whatever is frightening remains frightening, and the avoidance reinforces the fear.

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Of course, out of need, our alarm system is very efficient. Sometimes overly so. Research suggests 40 per cent of people describe public speaking as their biggest fear, even more than death. Clearly public speaking doesn't kill you. But this is the grip anxiety has on us, once it gets going.

Just like trying to fix a malfunctioning house alarm, you don't rip the whole system out and abandon security. You tune the sensitivity of the sensors so that when a fly crawls up the wall the alarm isn't triggered.

So how do you re-tune your own alarm system?

By gently, willingly and deliberately engaging in anxiety provoking things, that you know won't kill you. We call it exposure therapy. Here are some tips:

• Be targeted and deliberate: make a plan
• Find ways to challenge the anxiety, in small and manageable steps by breaking the anxiety provoking situation down into small chunks and starting small
• Learn some basic relaxation or breathing exercises to use while you engage in the task
• Remember avoidance is the enemy, not the anxiety. If you feel tempted to avoid take a deep breath and stick to your commitment
• Make sure you pay attention. Notice your anxiety and when and how it decreases. Your brain needs to notice the anxiety as it comes AND goes for this to work
• Keep going, and keep gently increasing the difficulty level
• Be kind, and be patient

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youth services: (06) 3555 906 (Palmerston North and Levin)
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (available 24/7)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

Follow Kyle on Facebook and check out his website here.

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Kyle MacDonald is an experienced psychotherapist and regular co-host on the NewstalkZB mental health awareness show The Nutters Club.

Kyle MacDonald is in private practice at the Robert Street Clinic in Auckland. For more: psychotherapy.org.nz or his Social Anxiety resource site: overcomingsocialanxiety.com.

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