Anxiety is in the body
Once anxiety is activated, you need to reduce the neuro-chemicals of stress in your body. For example, you may experience physical symptoms such as: a rapid heartbeat, tight chest, breathlessness, sweating, knotted stomach, neck and shoulder tension. Symptoms also include acid-reflux, gastro-intestinal problems (IBS) and wanting the toilet more frequently. At some point, you may feel overwhelmed or shut-down. You become disembodied, or cut-off from your emotions.
To deactivate your stress response you need to stimulate the vagus nerve, using diaphragmatic breathing. This is your rest and renewal system kicking-in: driven by hormones that increase your well being such as: seretonin, acetylcholine and dehydroepiandrostorene (DHEA). It is the same with all mammals and releases you from the distressing sensations of anxiety.
Your racing thoughts are not the immediate problem, even if they are compulsive and you can’t stop replaying them in your head. Thoughts don’t harm you. But your sensations do trigger panic, feelings of breathlessness, muscular tremors and tension, or a squirming gut.
Discharging stress hormones
So there’s no point getting caught up in your thoughts about the future, or regrets in the past. You are wasting valuable time, because you cannot solve the problem in your head. Anxiety will not dissipate, however clever you are at finding solutions. The only way to regulate intense, anxious feelings is to prime the vagus nerve with diaphragmatic breathing and grounding techniques. Then you need to move your body with exercise to discharge the build-up of cortisol. A raised heart-rate, breathing deeply and rigorous exercise will help, but do not smash it, or take it too far. Too much adrenalin-fuelled sport will sometimes increase anxiety and aggression.
Thoughts alone, even rational ones, are highly unlikely to reduce anxiety. They don’t have the power to discharge neuro-chemicals from your body, or prevent impulsive behaviour. Thoughts are only the representation of experience in words and images and do not stimulate the real feel of experience. this is why i can procrastinate in my thoughts for hours, without making an active decision, let alone follow it through.
Only sensations stimulate disturbing feelings of stress or impulsive displays anger and sudden mood swings. Thoughts have very limited capacity to prime rational response-behaviours. Equally, thoughts do not have the power to drive your behaviour in a crisis. It is the sensory-stimuli detected in your amygdala that throw you into high-alert, when you freeze or act on impulse. When stress hormones are triggered, only your body can help you change the way you feel and deactivate the stress.
You have been hijacked by your nervous system
Just think how anxiety hijacks your thoughts and turns you inside-out. Anxiety fills you full of dread, brings on panic-attacks, or convinces you you’re suffering a terminal disease. It makes you paranoid and throws the switch to freeze your body with crippling fear. But it isn’t thoughts commanding your reactions; it’s overwhelming feelings of fear. Rational thought, at this stage won’t intervene to save you.
If you’re the victim of a traumatic event, or you experience chronic anxiety in childhood, your body-brain gets wired to become hypervigilant (over-sensitve to stress). Conditioning is a process of learned behaviour, which embeds itself in the hair-trigger memories of the brain. Even the human gut is wired to respond to the threat signals from sensory stimuli. That’s why we respond so strongly to our gut-feeling such as: nausea, squirming gut, knotted stomach or butterflies.
Hypervigilance means you are constantly on the look-out; picking up disproportionate signals of threat. The amygdala in your brain has become overly sensitive to threat (like a finely-tuned antennae), even at low-stress levels. Once your brain has encoded the sensory reminders of perceived threat, you get caught in a cycle of remembering the threat stimuli, as if they were a real threat, even when there is none. This is the ‘muscle memory’ of threat.
Sympathetic nervous system
When your (sympathetic) nervous system is triggered, your cardio-vascular and respiratory system, your digestive tract and every organ in your body goes into high-alert. They are being primed for fight-flight-and-freeze. Even our musculo-skeletal system braces for attack with hunched shoulders, compressed vertebrae, neck-tension, or muscle tremors in the legs and arms. This is completely unconscious: you have no choice.
If you’ve learned to fight, you get angry and defensive. When you’ve learned to escape, you’re more likely to flee, or switch to avoidance behaviours. If you were too vulnerable to fight or flee as a child, you learn to freeze and shut-down. This is dissociation.
Rationalising cannot help you
In all events the physical sensations of anxiety act as a superior stimulus to what feels like a catastrophic response. You’re either hyper-alert and full of reactivity; or completely disembodied and shut-down until the nervous feelings subside (dissociation). This is your learned survival-response in the nervous system.
Although racing thoughts, excessive worrying and worst-case scenarios really do perpetuate anxiety; thoughts are not the major source of your distress. That’s why you can’t stop over-thinking, worrying late at night, or replaying scenes of a conflict in your head. These agitated thoughts are fuelled by neuro-chemical reactions that release stress hormones and change the way your brain processes threat.
No matter how many times the brain chases rational solutions; no matter how often you try to cover your tracks, you will not reduce anxiety. In fact, repetitive thoughts will often only antagonise and reinforce your anxiety.
Survival maps in childhood, or post-traumatic reminders
If anxiety is both an instinctive response and a learned one, where does it come from? Most responses to anxiety are learned in childhood, as a result of interactions with your parents, siblings and care-givers. They are deeply embedded in your sensory memory (hippocampus). You might experience stress because you have an extremely anxious parent, have witnessed violent conflict, or been the victim of abuse and neglect. Even if your feelings were frequently dismissed, or made to feel your voice didn’t matter it can have a lasting effect of paranoia and obsessions about what others think of you.
Experiencing some degree of anxiety is good for you as a child. A certain amount of stress allows you to be more alert; focus on your problems and tolerate adversity. But some children learn to feel disproportionately anxious.
The infants of post-natally depressed mothers, or emotionally shut-down fathers can experience high-degrees of anxiety. Children of parents who use drugs or alcohol are also unable to regulate their emotional states very easily. This is because all human beings are wired to bond and connect with loved ones, in order to communicate and feel safe. If parents are highly anxious, emotionally reactive, or cut-off from their emotions, a child’s ability to self-regulate is diminished. Through a process of mirroring facial expressions, eye-contact and affection your parents help you to learn about your own emotional states, and how to regulate, or stabilise them.
Even, learning how to regulate your breathing as infants is conditioned by synchronising breathing with a parent. If you’re emotionally manipulated or intruded upon by the parent’s anxious feelings, then you become emotionally dysregulated. And if you are not listened to, or your emotions are dismissed and undermined you end up feeling ashamed and not good enough. This dysregulates how the body metabolises stress to find equilibrium.
The impact of trauma
Physical and sexual abuse can cause a traumatic response, which rewires the brain-body with chronic anxiety. Having a long-term illness or being dependent on others. Being bullied at school, or feeling like an outsider increases the likelihood of acute psychological stress. And experiencing a traumatic event – like the death of a parent, or acrimonious divorce – can trigger permanent anxious states, unless a child is emotionally supported through a crisis.
Being neglected and feeling alone as a child, or being a carer for a parent is often so overwhelming it can also trigger extreme anxiety. Nearly all anxiety is related to human relationships and how you experience them. This is why you might feel social anxiety, paranoia and fear of other people judging you. It is also why some people are terrified of being abandoned or rejected by loved ones.
Improving your level of insight and understanding of what went wrong can help you develop better models, or strategies for managing anxiety, but only in the build-up to stressful events. Thoughts can also help you reflect and review your patterns of behaviour after the event.
But thoughts cannot help you once you’re triggered. You need to regulate the physiological responses of anxiety. For this reason, you learn to attune to your bodily sensations: observing the physiological processes and regulating your internal sensations.
Only regular mindful practice reduces anxiety – daily practice of mindfulness helps the mind to communicate with the body, via your nervous system. It develops an inner ‘muscle memory’ for adjusting your emotional states. And it rewires your brain to manage stress.