What is anxiety?
Anxiety is the human response to a perceived threat, or fear of the unknown. It is usually triggered by sense of dread or anticipation. Most people experience anxiety during a personal crisis, or period of change. Whether anxiety causes excessive worrying, panic-attacks or disembodied feelings, it can be overwhelming.
The most common trait of anxiety is fear of the unknown. You get caught in a cycle of fearing the worst: obsessing about your health, or some unresolved conflict at work. In relationships you find it impossible to feel safe: fearing rejection, or abandonment. Some people are so overwhelmed with anxiety they feel numb, or cut off from their emotions. For example, you may not have the confidence to speak up, or validate yourself. And you fear what other people think of you.
When you are in an anxious state you may experience low self-worth, while your achievements never seem good enough. You may find it difficult to sleep at night, worrying about the future, or replaying scenarios in your head. Other people find it difficult to sit in silence without fidgeting, or distracting themselves. They get agitated and prickly, without knowing why.
A primitive survival response
All humans are wired-up for anxiety. It’s a primitive survival-response inherited from your evolutionary past and deeply embedded in the nervous system. It overrides your thoughts and causes impulsive behaviour. It hijacks your brain, making you feel out of control. The animal inside, is alive and kicking.
Whenever anxiety is driving your behaviour, you are usually reacting to a perceived threat, rather than a real one. It might be triggered by an irrational belief, or impending sense of doom at a social event. You feel an instinctive foreboding without knowing why. What often happens is your brain detects unconscious sensory stimuli (like sounds, smells, or facial expressions), which trigger traumatic memories from your past. These sensations are interpreted by the brain as a threat.
For example, you go into a bar with a large crowd of loud, sociable people. A few people are laughing raucously, then suddenly a man turns and stares, as if scrutinising you. You were already feeling tense and self-conscious before you went in. Now you find the atmosphere intimidating. The unconscious cues you pick-up flex an old ‘muscle-memory’ for extreme shyness. And although you don’t recall a specific memory, your body tenses, you begin to fidget and perspire, which only adds to your discomfort. You’re hypervigilant, without knowing why, which causes you to panic.
It’s as if your subconscious is alerting you to a hidden danger and predicting a catastrophe. There is a bio-chemical reaction in your body. The alert signal in your brain fires a cascade of hormones in your nervous system and puts you into high alert – with your senses roused, primed to react. While some people go on the attack, others go on the defence, or freeze in their tracks.
Whilst anxiety is quite manageable for most people, for some even low-levels of stress (such as exams, meeting deadlines, public-speaking, or decision-making) can cause chronic anxiety. Stress hormones flood the body: arousing fear, tension and hypervigilance, even when you’re trying to rest. It can cause breathlessness, heart palpitations, sleepless nights, sweating and frequent visits to the toilet.
The entire body has been hijacked by the sympathetic nervous system, pushing it into survival mode. This may get converted into a deep fear of failure, when we’re under pressure at work. Or you could develop a desperate urge to please others and win their approval, especially if it’s difficult to validate yourself.
Anxiety is not a defect
Anxiety is not a defect, or a weakness. It’s part of the human condition and can even help you under pressure: honing your instincts, making you more competitive and keeping you alert in a hostile environment. Your brain-body is just trying to survive. It is trying to process incoming stimuli, solve problems and predict the outcome in a stressful situation. However, if you’re chronically stressed in childhood by an anxious parent…or if you’re abused, or traumatised as an adult, your brain can become wired to fixate on negative stimuli.
Some people may experience high amounts of anxiety in childhood without even realising, as they learn to freeze and shut-down their emotions (dissociation). A child might also be shielded from adversity by parents, who constantly rescue them from challenging situations. But later in life, when someone needs to be more resilient and fend for themselves, they react disproportionately. Adversity is no longer an adaptive challenge , but an intolerable reaction to stress.
Do emotions, or thoughts drive anxiety?
Although anxiety may take the form of excessive worrying, racing thoughts and avoidance behaviours, it is primarily a physiological response. Anxiety is created in the body. Stress hormones like adrenalin and cortisol flood the body, which causes distress and dysregulates the nervous system. It shortens the breath, increases your heart rate, dilates pupils, inflames our gut, increases muscle tension, makes you perspire and go to the toilet more frequently. For some people, anxiety shuts them down and cuts them off from emotion, so they feel numb and disembodied.
While you get caught up in your thoughts, anticipating worst-case scenarios, or replaying old arguments in your head, cortisol running the show, not your thoughts. You may convince yourself you’re going to mess-up in exams, or embarrass yourself at a social event, but stress freezes you. Rather than take an experimental approach, or take risks and learn to adapt, you shut-down and reinforce old patterns of avoidance.
For example, if you’re anxious at social gatherings and you recall negative experiences at school, you will seek reasons to tell yourself you’re going to look stupid and avoid attending. The memory of self-consciousness from the past becomes an embedded response, wired into your nervous system. The negative thoughts themselves are not the problem, it’s your nerves shutting you down. The thoughts in your head are just a symbolic realisation of what you already feel.
Do emotions drive thoughts, or thoughts influence emotions?
It is self-evident that emotions drive human thought and behaviour: especially in a crisis when your survival instincts kick-in. This is why you find it difficult to think rationally, when you’re anxious. The limbic region of the brain goes into survival-mode and overrides your higher functions to protect you from harm. For example, when hunger overrides generosity; when anger drives you to protect yourself in a conflict. Or when anxiety causes you to hide your feelings from the people you love. But the premise of this argument is somewhat misleading.
It’s not that cognitive thought processes are useless in regulating emotion. I am not suggesting your thoughts are irrelevant, or surplus to requirements. In reality your thoughts and beliefs influence behaviour and help you plan ahead, solve problems and look for solutions. The cognitive, thinking part of your brain (in the prefrontal-cortex) does regulate emotion and has an inhibitory effect on your impulses. It’s just that our emotions are stronger.
Scientists know that higher order emotions like love and altruism are mediated by the cognitive processes in the brain. It’s not that your beliefs don’t influence how you react to others; it’s just that thinking sends a weaker signal than the primitive brain when it’s on high alert.
Scientists know the brain’s emotional circuits are connected to thinking circuits. And this means you can access conscious thoughts to regulate your emotions . However, you cannot ‘empty’ the mind in a crisis, or force it to have logical thoughts. As long as you feel under threat, you cannot command yourself to have positive feelings. But over time you can learn to sneak up on your emotions and train yourself to be less impulsive via the ‘thinking brain’.
People who are emotionally resilient, are able to regain a sense of balance after a crisis – rather than plagued with anger, shame, or anxiety. If you develop stronger connections between the left prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the amygdala, you can adapt to adversity without too much drama. You train the left-PFC to send inhibitory signals to the amygdala, helping it to quieten down. As your amygdala slows down, you stand back, observe and take stock. Not just react.
As a result, intense feelings of anxiety in the survival brain begin to quiet down and become more tolerable. Less overwhelming. In contrast, when we have less emotional resilience there are fewer signals between the thinking and survival brain. The neuronal connections are weaker.
Sensory mindfulness aims at increasing emotional resilience, by helping you trust your instincts and emotions. Your senses are the only empirical feedback you have about the world. If you rely on thoughts, you are not learning from experience. Mindfulness helps you build trust in your emotions and strengthens your instincts. Slowly, as you develop stronger neural connections, you find that your conscious mind is more responsive to the present moment. It sends inhibitory signals to the amygdala, regulating your emotions.
Mindful practice helps you observe your thoughts and feelings, as if you were a non-judgmental witness. You are training yourself to develop the capacity to pause, observe your emotional process and listen to what it’s telling you. And slowly, you learn to do this, without getting drawn into the chaos of a disproportionate emotional response.