Wired-up for anxiety
We are all wired for anxiety as part of a primitive survival mechanism inherited from our evolutionary past. The fear response is deeply embedded in our neural networks, alerting the body and brain to danger. The animal in us is alive and kicking.
Anxiety triggers our “fight, flight and freeze response” when we feel threatened, firing off a cascade of neurochemical transmitters in our nervous system whenever we detect danger or get into conflict. Even low-level threats such as meeting deadlines, problem-solving, making decisions or completing a difficult task can cause an accumulation of stress that leads to anxiety. Stress hormones flood the body: priming us for immediate action - arousing fear, tension and keeping us on high alert.
When this happens, you aren’t wrong to feel anxious. You’re not dysfunctional. It’s a natural, instinctive response to the stress of living in a competitive, hostile environment. Your brain-body is just trying to survive. But at times your brain may be responding disproportionately, unable to find the balance between focussing on positive and negative stimuli.
For some people, anxiety is experienced as conflicting thoughts in the conscious mind…
It may take the form of procrastination, racing thoughts, or excessive worrying - like the fear of not getting that dream job, the fear of failing, or endlessly worrying about your health. It may take the form of anticipating worst-case scenarios such as dread about the future: convincing yourself you’re going to mess up your exams, or make the wrong decisions about a low-key event which you obsess about disproportionately. You may endlessly repeat screenplays in your head – replaying old arguments with someone in order to get the outcome you wanted at the time.
For other people anxiety is experienced as a heightened sensation in the body…
It may take the form of hyperarousal, where the whole body is triggered by stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin. You may experience shortness of breath, heart palpitations, sweating, dry mouth, trembling limbs or tension in the back, neck and shoulders. Some people even suffer from full blown panic-attacks, where they can barely breathe and feel close to a collapse or a heart attack. It can create craving for stimulants such as drugs, alcohol and other addictions which feed their need to find quick relief. Not being able to regulate heightened emotions such as fearfulness, anger and mood swings is also a key feature of anxiety.
For a few people anxiety is experienced as a cycle of compulsive behaviours and rituals…
These behaviours may take the form of obsessive thoughts leading to compulsive behaviours such as aligning, organising, or sorting objects into a specific order, to feel some sense of control over the environment at the moment of stress and anxiety. It may take the form of finger tapping, drumming your feet, blinking excessively or regulating nervous tics, which temporarily discharge the accumulation of stress hormones like cortisol. Anxiety may include sensation-seeking and risk-taking, in order to get that dopamine hit to relieve the symptoms of anxiety, or finally relax and let go. Stress can lead to compulsive acts of agitation, aggression, or even violence, which are intended to control other people’s behaviour, in order to make them feel safe. Sometimes explosive outbursts of aggression are the only way they believe they can bring relief from overwhelming feelings.
How to self-regulate anxiety
Self-regulating your sensations, thoughts and emotional states is a process you need to accept will take time to learn. It is not an overnight process. And you will never stop feeling anxiety; it is a natural and necessary part of the human condition. You may learn to reduce it. Remember, you have probably spent days, months, or even years suffering from anxiety.
This process embedded a set of neural pathways in the brain – which trigger your amygdala, hippocampus and sympathetic nervous system into high state of alert. These are strong signals developed instinctively by your ‘survival brain’ as a set of powerful responses to threat stimuli, which is not likely to disappear in a hurry. It will take time to consciously retrain yourself and rewire your brain. Try to practice the exercises below in times of mild to moderate anxiety, not in a state of severe to critical anxiety. Once you have learned to train your body and brain to self-regulate; it will develop its own instinct to intervene naturally. And be prepared to experience long moments of frustration, anger and disappointment as you make mistakes and learn. These are not failures. These are a valuable part of the learning process: you need to learn by trial-and-error. Not live, die, repeat.
Developing awareness in the danger zone - when you are at the lower end of your anxiety you are more likely to develop a clear awareness of the stimuli that trigger your anxiety. These are your early warning signals. Pay attention to them, remain curious and observe how they build-up in your system long before they trigger cycles of anxious thought, panic and nervous behaviour. For example, you may notice low-level tension building in the neck, back and shoulders; or nervous tics; pacing up-and-down; holding onto your breath; hanging on till the last minute for the toilet; or noticing your posture beginning to slouch. Be aware at this level of stress and anxiety you can make easier interventions to prevent the whole train lurching into action or building momentum. But not if you don’t.
Pause – learn to pause as soon as you pick-up the early warning signals. You might take a breath, let your body flop, take time-out, or sit down and look away from the threatening person, or put a stop to your screenplays. As soon as you pause, come out of your immediate thoughts; try to see yourself from a slight distance, but remain attached to a conscious awareness of your body. You may want to focus on a particular sensation. But expect to find it takes a few attempts, before you can remember to pause in the moment. It takes practice.
Slowing down – to help you slow down, try to pay attention to the sound and sensation of your breath. Develop a slow, easy breathing rhythm. With each in-breath, inhale more slowly and deeply than before, creating a sense of spaciousness in the chest. With each new out-breath try to feel the muscles in your body relax and let go of the pent-up tension. As you breathe in, say the word ‘IN’; as you breathe out, say the word ‘OUT’. Be patient, this is not a race to absolute calm; it is a process, step-by-step. You may notice that you struggle at first, but over days and weeks your body will develop an instinctive response.
Acceptance – try to develop a gradual sense of acceptance that you are in this moment NOW and there is nothing you can do to change this. You cannot go back and change this moment; you cannot fast forward to the future and escape it. Right now is all you have. It is what it is. And when you truly accept this, you will have given yourself a choice about what to do now, and a small window of opportunity about what comes next. I even ask clients to learn to accept and observe their anxiety in the midst of distress. The brain has the ability to step slightly outside of itself and observe - watching what is happening. It's not easy, and you will still experience distress. It is just that you can see yourself at the same time, as you experience your heightened emotions.
Then you can focus on try to stop the downward spiral. Stop anticipating what comes next, or imagining what something will be like before it happens. Break the cycle of experiencing imaginary events as if they were happening right now. When you stop anticipating, the next moment is uncertain and an opportunity arises to do something different, not repeat the past. You are not your anxious thoughts and your anticipation is not reality.
Curiosity – try to develop a child-like curiosity about your feelings and thoughts, without judging them, or telling yourself what you SHOULD be feeling. Notice what your bodily sensations are, with a blend of observation, sensing and experimentation. This involves paying attention to the here-and-now; taking an interest in each passing moment; and noticing what is happening with your internal experience. Remaining aware of your sensations, feelings and thoughts as they emerge.
Watching the body and mind – try to allow yourself to observe whatever you are experiencing in the here-and-now. This is like developing two states of mind at once. One part of your mind – the experiencing ego – is deeply embedded in every passing moment, aware of itself in space and time, experiencing feelings of arousal and responding spontaneously to the five senses.
Try this with experiencing something fast, urgent and exciting; as well as something slow, calm and easy. Develop the other part of your mind – the observing ego – so that it learns to watch the experience it is having at the same time. You may even develop a quiet inner voice that describes the experience back to yourself at the time, using the present tense. “I am feeling warm, light and relaxed in the sunshine”. Or “I am feeling heavy, burdened and weighed down with my thoughts”.
Practice these exercises in sequence on a regular basis as part of your daily routine. It is a process you can do anywhere, at any time without anyone noticing your feeling self-conscious. Remember, your anxiety will tell you: “I haven’t got time for this”. “I need to do this in a perfect setting”. “I must have absolute control over my mind before I can slow down”. ”I should not be struggling”.
But none of these statements are true. Learn to accept your struggles, frustration and disappointment. They are all part of the process. You are not racing towards Nirvana, perfection or success. You are learning how to be with yourself and learn by example…
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About Gregori Savva
I am Greg Savva. An experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I believe in a compassionate, supportive approach to counselling as the best way forward for my clients. I focus on helping you make sense of erratic thoughts and emotions. Offering you a chance to gain self-awareness and change for the better www.enduringmind.co.uk