How can mindfulness really help?
I understand that stress and anxiety is a condition of the body and mind (V. S. Ramachandran, 2004). Stress can be triggered by external threats to life and limb such as being attacked by another person. Or stress can be perceived internally from distressing memories of a traumatic event such as child abuse or being bullied at school. It can also be perceived internally as a form of catastrophic thinking about the future, such as a fantasy that if you stand up to a loved one this will lead to confrontation, or you'll be abandoned if you become a burden to them. These fantasies are often disproportionate responses to real events because the 'fight and flight response has been triggered, and our perception of them is out of proportion, making us feel fearful, on edge or panicked (L. Cozolino, 2012). If we do not learn to self-regulate our emotions and find relief this can have a heavy toll on our health. As a counsellor in Twickenham and Whitton, I encourage clients to develop an awareness of themselves as they experience stress, anxiety and depressive episodes.
Stress can be deceptive:
It's all too easy to normalise stress until it becomes an habitual way of functioning in everyday life. Stress becomes a compelling driving force in your life without you realising until it’s too late. And it remains buried in the subconscious mind. This can be observed with a driving analogy to describe the most common ways people respond to stress:
- Pumping the accelerator – this leads to spikes of anxiety and leaves you in a fearful, angry or agitated state - the “fight” response. You’re heated up, tense, overly emotional, and unable to sit still. You may behave in an erratic manner, being restless and unable to settle.
- Pumping the brakes – this leads to a state of deep withdrawal and leaves you depressed or exhausted - the “flight” response. You shut down, become detached and emotionally unavailable, showing very little energy or motivation to act or participate in social interaction.
- Foot on both accelerator and brakes – this leads to a tense, rigid state - the “freeze” response. You become frozen under pressure; feeling paralyzed and stuck, but under the surface you remain extremely agitated.
The symptoms of Stress & Anxiety:
The following table lists some of the common warning signs and symptoms of stress. The more symptoms you notice in yourself, the closer you may be to stress overload.
Is it Fear, Panic or Anxiety?
You may have suffered anxiety for years, setting your thoughts racing or causing you to imagine the whole world was caving in. Whilst the distress my have triggered panic-attacks, interrupted sleep or led to angry outbursts. Perhaps the only answer was to shut down or avoid painful reminders of distress, but this rarely brought relief. All you could do was worry, churning things over and over. Not a very effective way of dealing with the world or adapting to it. In short, you may have created your own internal prison, trapped by fear. So why does it happen?
Anxiety is a type of fear, but not a state of fear triggered by real and present danger – such as a tiger or a man with a club. Immediate fear activates the limbic system in the brain and causes instant chemical messages to be sent along our synapses in milliseconds, priming the emotional centres for 'fight anf flight'. Alerting the brain and body to danger. In this aroused state the brain acts a bit like an alarm system when an infrared sensor is triggered, setting-off a series of electric impulses to sound an alarm, throwing a switch and locking down. In the brain, these chemical messages reach our adrenal glands to release certain hormones – such as adrenalin and cortisol – which makes the heart beat faster, causes our breathing rate to rise and increase the flow of blood and oxygen to our physical organs. At the same time our motor neurons are alerted and the muscles primed for action. And finally the 'fight-and-flight response' is activated. Once the danger has passed new hormones like insulin and dopamine are released, causing deactivation by the parasympathetic nervous system and thereby bringing about a state of homeostasis and relaxation.
Anxiety, however, is not the same as fear of immediate danger. Anxiety is a response to anticipated events in the future, or a response to embedded memories of the past that you;ve convinced yourself will be repeated. It involves fear of a future event as if it were happening now – such as a glancing look or a cross word activating fantasies they will be fired by the boss. Or the belief that we're a fraud who might be discovered at any moment. Anxiety is not based on current reality, but a projection of it. However, because the anticipated event is some way off in the future, the fear remains locked in, unable to relieve itself. Spinning around in your head, while stress hormones keep us permanently primed like a coiled spring. Over time anxiety reinforces itself, feeding off its own energy, causing cycles of negative thinking and spiralling out of control until the inevitable happens. Ironically, this self-fulfilling prophesy is an unconscious attempt to bring relief, which never comes.
As such, anxiety does not follow the same rules as ordinary fear. In fact, what happens in humans, is that the stress hormones remain trapped in the brain’s synaptic network and the body as toxic hormones like toxins, causing a continuous sensation of tension but never allowing us to relax. This in turn leads us to feel suspended in a state of hypervigilance – fearing the worst but not knowing when it will happen. As such, a train of negative thoughts spiral aorund in the brain making us feel paranoid, believing ourselves to be under threat. And since the threat is based on fantasy or painful memories of the past, we rarely find relief as the cycle of anxiety is repeated
How can mindfulness really help?
I use Mindfulness in counselling to help you relieve the physiological and psychological symptoms of stress. If you look at the exercise in Step 2 on the previous pages you will realise that mindfulness exercises can be used in the midst of anxiety or panic to relieve the symptoms of stress. It happens something like this. First, stress hormones are released into the blood, which increase heart-rate and breathing, keeping the muscles primed and ready for action, as well as hypervigilance which increases anxiety levels. Physiological symptoms are usually triggered by the unconscious mind as part of the 'fight-or-flight' response to fear. However, as humans we can learn to relieve ourselves from these stressors by deactivating our sympathetic nervous system. This is achieved by regulating our breathing to bring down the heart rate, regulate hormone production and bring about a state of restfulness and homeostasis (M. Williams, 2011).
At Counselling in Twickenham and Whitton (EnduringMind), I provide a number of resources to help you learn how to practice Mindfulness. There are already some exercises to download with mp3 voice recordings on the Mindfulness page of this website, as well as the exercise in Step 2. I also provide links to various Apps for the iphone and android systems to download onto your mobile phone. At Counselling in Twickenham and Whitton, EnduringMind, I teach clients how to use a variety of mindfulness activities for all kinds of psychological and emotional issues: including anxiety, depression, relationship issues, anger management, phobias, PTSD, eating disorders and trauma. Above are diagrams of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which may help you understand how mindfulness helps you intentionally change your mindset and gain mastery over it. The sympathetic nervous system is stimulated under stress, anxiety, fear and anger. It speeds up our heart rate, breathing and prevents digestion, keeping us tense, aroused and fearful. This also triggers negative feelings like anxiety or anger to protect ourselves from the perceived threat. Mindfulness activities on the other hand activate the parasympathetic nervous system - bringing down our arousal states, breathing and heart rates. Allowing us to relax the muscles, expel the toxic hormones and find a more restful state of being. As well as stopping the racing thoughts and catastrophic fantasies that come with anxiety.