Anxiety and body - how talking therapy can help
This article is a basic knowledge for any biologists. I however, think it is worthwhile to briefly explain how anxiety originally forms, how it can become problematic and how the problem can affect relationships. I will also add how some aspects of effective talking therapy can mitigate anxiety.
Origin of anxiety
Most of the feelings are bodily sensations. Anxiety is no exception. As a living organism, human beings needs to feel fearful of certain things in order to survive as an individual and as species. We are hard-wired to register common aspects of danger such as sharp loud noises, sudden jolts, high temperatures, a swift approach of an object or stinging taste or odour. Scientists have been identifying that the so-called "reptilian brain" - a part of brain which controls involuntary bodily homeostasis - is the centre of circuit for crisis. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in to prepare the person to fight or flight. Pupils open wide to see better, the heart beats faster to mobilse potential action and blood vessels tighten to minimise the loss of blood in case you get injured.
The reptilian brain can temporarily override everything else. In certain dangerous situations, everything else must be put on hold. Once the danger is over, the equilibrium returns. The sharp manifestation of the sympathetic nervous system recedes into the background. The person can go back to routine after a moment of anxiety.
How anxiety can become unhelpful
Human beings receive myriads of stimulations from the environment. Various stimulations, when it is offered with warmth, love and care, facilitate the ideal neuronal growth of the so-called mammalian brain - the part of the brain which is vital for constructive thinking as well as social learning. When development happens in this way, all will be well. If a person however, repeatedly experiences the environment as threatening, his/her body always needs to be on alert. This has a significant biological impact.
Earlier I wrote that sympathetic nervous system prepares a person to either fight or flight. In this situation, a hormone called cortisone is rapidly released in the body. Some research suggests that chronic flooding of cortisone can damage the growth of neuronal tendrils. In other words, excessive alert signals within the body can bring certain learning experience which was previously achieved back to zero.
Certain learning theories suggest that we learn best when the stimuli are within the medium range. Namely we do not learn well when the stimulation is too low; the learning becomes too boring. When the stimulation is too strong beyond a person’s capacity, the learning system completely shuts down. This is the situation where the sympathetic nervous system is overriding everything else. With constant hyper-alert signals, we simply do not learn well.
To summarise, the experience of constant excessive environmental danger signals has two implications. Firstly, it can nullify previous learning. Secondly, it makes new learning very difficult.
Perhaps one of the painful manifestations of this closed-down learning circuit is PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). The autonomous nervous system loses balance for a prolonged period of time; the switch is almost always on for sympathetic nervous system due to a series of or one-off traumatic experience.
Impact on relationship
So far I have focused on internal regulation and dysregulatin of anxiety. Some people have tendencies of either over or under-regulation. Like most other things, both strategies have pros and cons. Over and under-regulation of anxiety can present characteristics such as autonomy, reliability, strength, sensitivity, expressiveness and openness. On the other hand, people with over or under-regulation of anxiety can be prone to sudden break-downs or abrupt bursts of anger. They can become demanding with requests for emotional enmeshment. You can easily imagine that these personal traits can cause troubles in relationships where one person chases the other without achieving much relational harmony and satisfaction.
Both of these groups of people can benefit from developing new strategies, firstly by recognising the bodily cues of anxiety. Anxiety is a bodily sensation. You can detect it when it comes. The process which follows the command of reptilian brain often takes place without attracting our attention. You can however, tune into it. Do let that part of your brain speak to you. It is a vital cue, signalling that you feel threatened.
You can then deal with it, perhaps on your own by carrying out some relaxation exercises. Or perhaps you have already tried them without success.
Benefit of talking therapy for people with anxiety
You can also regulate your anxiety by asking somebody appropriate to soothe it with you for you. This is where a psychotherapist can step in.
Earlier I mentioned that anxiety usually originates from experiencing external threat. That is one of the reasons why psychotherapists think it is vital that your session offers you a sense of safety. When you feel safe, your internal danger circuit is allowed to stay quiet. This is why some clients say that they feel relaxed during the session. Further, people learn best when there is neither sense of being overwhelmed, nor sense of being bored. Attempts of learning achieves better outcome when we feel safe.
Psychotherapy sessions offers you safe environment where you can talk about your experience with a practitioner who will facilitate your exploration. The sense of safety will make your discoveries and new awareness easier to absorb. By surrounding you with safe environment, you are tackling your anxiety with your therapist on various levels; on bodily level by trying to address dysregulation in your autonomic nervous system. You are also tackling anxiety on a thinking level by facilitating your conscious learning in the mammalian brain and perhaps on emotional level, which appears to be a sophisticated interplay of body and thoughts and concurrently an autonomous entity of its own.
If you want to know more, a book such as Why Love Matters written by Sue Gerhardt is very approachable.
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About Mari Yamamoto
I am a psychotherapist registered with the UKCP and I have a Masters degree in Integrative Psychotherapy. I have been offering counselling and psychotherapy for the past ten and a halr years in English and Japanese. My private practice is based in Ealing W5. I welcome clients from various backgrounds.