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The brain and body are not separate. They operate as an integrated whole organism. Body and brain communicate via the nervous system embedded in both. This is what makes it work as a unit.
Fear and anxiety are triggered by an interaction between the five senses (sensations), the brain (perception & emotional response), the nervous system (sympathetic nervous system & hormones) and the body (action & behaviour).
The evidence that fear and anxiety are ‘firing’ in your body is this – a rush of adrenalin, breathlessness, increased heartrate, palpitations, irregular heartbeat, trembling, sweating, dryness of mouth, wanting to go to the toilet, feelings of panic, tension in the neck, shoulders and back etc.
EMOTION vs THOUGHT
Fear is an intense sensation and triggers intense emotions. These are mostly triggered unconsciously, outside of our awareness.
Conscious thoughts are always last to make themselves known in this process, as the brain and body are wired towards survival first. We do not have time to think things out as danger approaches. We must respond instinctively and then act.
NOW vs FUTURE
Fear is a response to the NOW.
Anxiety is a response to a perceived FUTURE. Or a fear that the PAST (trauma) will repeat itself.
EXTERNAL vs INTERNAL sensations
Fear is a response to an external threat – like a man with a club
Anxiety is a response to external and internal sensations which we may or may not be aware of – like a build up of low stress or a catastrophic future I imagine in my head.
CONSCIOUS vs UNCONSCIOUS
Both fear and anxiety are unconscious responses which are always triggered by the senses first. And long before they turn to anxious thoughts. You only become aware of anxiety and fear when the signals are too strong to ignore. This is when your thoughts start whirring and spin out of control.
FEAR vs ANXIETY
Fear is an emotional response to immediate and present danger, picked up by your sensations in the environment (like a bear coming at you). It is a response to a real threat.
Anxiety is a type of fear, but not a response to immediate danger. It’s an emotional response to accumulated stress which is perceived as an approaching danger. That is danger in the future. But experienced ‘AS IF’ it were happening now.
FIGHT & FLIGHT vs FREEZE
Fear is a response to the NOW. It is experienced as biological ‘FIGHT & FLIGHT RESPONSE’’, which eventually leads to physical relief by discharging the hormones once action is taken.
The response to anxiety is ‘FREEZE’, because there is no immediate danger to fight or flee from. This is where the anxiety becomes locked-in, undischarged. Because the future has not yet arrived.
ACT before you THINK
When anxiety is triggered but there is NO clear and present danger, the brain goes off to search for it in the prefrontal cortex (where thoughts and fantasies are projected into the future). Because this does not lead to immediate relief, the anxiety escalates in an upward spiral and triggers the fight and flight system ‘AS IF’ the danger were HERE and NOW. The brain asks itself WHY is this happening?
This is an example of where rational thought won’t help you. Only your instincts will.
Once the fight and flight system is triggered it is unconscious and automatic. You have no voluntary control over it. You body is flooded with stress hormones and you cannot discharge them. The brain needs to ask ‘Not WHY is this happening? But WHAT is happening? And HOW can I discharge it? You must do this ASAP.
This is because the dangerous FUTURE has not happened yet. BUT it feels like it has. And unless you discharge the anxiety it turns into panic.
HELP THE BODY FIRST before PROBLEM SOLVING
Once the ‘fight and flight’ system is triggered, you need to bring your body into balance first – by pausing, slowing it down and discharging the hormones that trigger intense feelings of anxiety. You can do this using a number of sensory-motor interventions - such as breathing, exercise, grounding techniques, stretching and meditation.
WHY DOES THIS WORK BETTER?
Because the ‘fight and flight system' is triggered automatically and puts all your internal organs (heart, adrenal glands, lungs, bladder, intestines, sweat glands, eyes etc.) into a state of HIGH ALERT, you need to regulate your physical sensations first. The only organs you have voluntary control over are your lungs. Nothing else.
You need to regulate your breathing first: to send a message to your brain to stop sending out more stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. To slow down your heartrate. To cool down the body. The soother the nerves and muscle-twitching.
Once you have discharged the stress chemicals in your body, you are ready to use your thinking brain to solve the problem which originally triggered your anxiety, but without the pain and distess of anxiety. Just using normal levels of arousal.
Without discharging stress, your brain cannot think clearly. It is not fit for purpose. The body is still on high alert and the emotional brain will still be in a state of vigilance - stuck in survival mode. The thinking brain cannot hear itself thinking when the alarm bell is going off in your body.
PREVENTION vs CURE (INTERVENTION)
To become better at managing anxiety before it turns into PANIC, you need daily practice at relieving the symptoms of stress. Regulating your feelings, not escalating them.
The more you become aware of your bodily sensations, the more they act as your early warning system. If you only pay attention to anxiety when it becomes unbearable or if you only pay attention to anxious thoughts, you will be diverted away from the immediate cause of your distress.
Once you notice the build-up of stress in your physiology, you can relieve the symptoms with immediate action, long before it turns to panic. HOWEVER, this takes time to learn through repeated pratice and reinforcement. It takes time because you need to build new neural pathways for these routines to become embedded. This is how the brain learns to unhook itself from anxiety.
Daily practice of breathing, stretching, exercising, work, rest, yoga and meditation therfore trains the body and brain to work together - relieving itself of stress and reinforcing the instincts (or neural pathways) which will discharge stress chemicals, even in the midst of an anxiety attack. Eventually, this will happen instinctively.
BEING IN THE NOW
By learning to rest your brain and body, you automatically relieve it of stress symptoms. By focussing on sensations rather than thoughts, you are being in the now, rather than chasing a negative train of thought, probelm-solving or caught up in endless screen-playing inside your head. Putting yourself under pressure to find intellectual solutions will only lead you back into a spiral of anxiety, as you endlessly play out the scenarios in your head.
CONFRONT IT vs AVOIDANCE
Anxiety naturally and unconsciously leads us to avoid the painful triggers and feelings of stress. But unconscious avoidance also leads us to treat more and more stimuli as potentially threatening. If we have social anxiety at first, we may avoid one person, then another, then more people, until finally we avoid contact with the outside world.
If you want to stop the downward spiral, you need to confront the things you are able to face up to, lower down the scale. Don’t let yourself say ‘I can’t be bothered’.
NUDGE vs SHOVE
The lower down the scale you confront the things that make you anxious, the more likely you are to deal with your problems. Nudge yourself into dealing with the things you can manage, with a small amount of challenge attached to them. Do not shove yourself hard in the back to achieve the unmanageable. You might have an initial success and feel good about hitting that peak of endurance, but it will not last, and you will need to set the bar ever higher, until it becomes unbearable once more.
REWARD vs PUNISHMENT (ABSTINENCE)
Do not punish, shame or guilt-trip yourself when you fail. You will only demotivate and distress yourself in the end. Better to reward yourself for simple, small achievements and motivate yourself to complete things step-by-step. Think of failure as an opportunity to do things differently, not the end of the road.
HEPLFUL vs HELPLESS
When you have a series of HELPFUL interactions, however small, this leads to a feeling of confidence. If you can help your body discharge anxiety (even if you cannot solve the problem), you are giving yourself a feeling of relief. If you simply surrender to anxious feelings, by doing nothing at all, you give into feelings of DESPAIR and HELPLESSNESS.
PROCESS vs DESTINATION
If you are OUTCOME driven, then failure is not an option. And if you do fail, you are only left with a sense of shame and blame with no way out. The failures of OUTCOME driven people leads to despair.
If you are PROCESS driven, then failure is a mistake you can learn from and move on. It isn’t pleasant to fail, but at least you can take responsibility and fix the problem. The failures of PROCESS driven people are opportunities they can learn from and build on for the future.
ABOVE ALL BE KIND, COMPASIONATE & EMPATHIC TOWARDS YOURSELF
Shaming yourself for failure is about the most self-destructive cycle you can get into. Shame is the biggest single cause of anxiety in our attachment with others and in relation to oursleves. If your inner voice is continuously self-critical and judgemental. If you play-out scenes in your head, if you worry excessively, if you imagine what others are thinking of you, then it is you shaming yourself. It causes the brain to shrink back into primal LIMBIC brain processes, rather than higher functioning PRE-FRONTAL CORTEX processes.
Being kind to yourself. Being caring and understanding encourages you to take responsibility and gives you the confidence to change.
Stress and Anxiety - Effects on the Body