Nobody panic! This week, we are going to explore the function of anxiety and its impact on the brain and body. Anxiety is one of those emotions that most of us try to avoid like the plague. Racing heart, palms sweating, rapid breathing, stomach knots, tunnel vision, chest tightness, and other unpleasantness is often associated with the feeling of anxiety. Naturally, this makes avoidance of that feeling pretty attractive.
For our purposes, we can consider anxiety to be like a house alarm. Anxiety is the emotion that serves as our body's warning system for threats and potential harm. This was, of course, a useful function of the body when we used to live out in the wild and there were wooly mammoths or mountain lions lurking about. Because of how important threat detection is to human survival, the brain has developed a system that is constantly and silently scanning the environment looking for any markers of threat or stress so that we can respond as quickly as possible. Again, if I am standing in the middle of a lovely field enjoying the nice breeze and looking at the rolling grass, I do want for my brain to have the ability to detect the lion lurking on the edge of my view, pump my system full of adrenaline and cortisol, and allow me to move more quickly with hopes of protecting me from getting eaten alive. Very adaptive.
As we've discussed before, the brain does its absolute best to be efficient and effective which means that not only is it scanning the environment for threat, but once detected, the brain soaks the threat information up like a sponge. It uses this information to create an implicit memory of that experience so that in the future it can identify and respond to a similar threat more effectively and more quickly. In other words, if I ever experienced a home invasion, I am likely to get an alarm system installed at my house with cameras, motion detectors, and a connection to an emergency response team. For many of us, this would be enough. Knowledge that I have a security system is enough to let me relax whenever the system isn't going off. I can walk around my house day or night feeling relaxed and safe. I will merely respond whenever the alarm gets triggered then I'll go back to living my life.
For those with a trauma history, anxious attachment style, anxiety disorders, or a more sensitive nervous system, it can feel a bit like living in a house with a faulty alarm system. Imagine being in your room watching TV at night before bed and suddenly hearing your house alarm go off. Instantly the brain reacts to this as if there is an intruder and sends you into fight or flight. You immediately have physical responses that allow you to mobilize more quickly, begin thinking of the worst case scenarios, and attempt to do what is necessary to investigate and respond. Tip-toeing down the hall holding the remote control in your hands like a baseball bat (because that will be so helpful) you see that your cat, Fluffy, knocked over a potted plant which triggered a motion detector. False alarm. False alarm or not, the body and brain still experienced this situation as an actual, genuine threat to your safety.
Now imagine this happening about 15 times over the course of a day. The physical toll it takes on the body and brain to be hyper-vigilant and experience this level of activation repeatedly is significant. Eventually, I might get so frustrated by the faulty alarm system that I disable it. For many with anxiety, this is where unhealthy coping comes in. You know what's better than sitting on the couch in a panic because your alarm just went off for the 8th time today and you don't know why? -- Being drunk. Or high. Or unconscious. Or otherwise sedated. It can feel unsafe to not have a functioning alarm system, but it can feel worse to have an overactive alarm system.
Due to how distressing and disruptive anxiety feels, humans spend a lot of time trying to avoid experiencing it. The brain starts by warning us when the same threat or experience is present but then over time starts to further generalize the experience. In other words, the brain starts with a specific focus and then expands to include more and more within the realm of anxiety provoking stimuli. Your house alarm is initially set up to only alert you to an actual intruder but over time becomes reactive to neighbors walking up to your door, then people walking by on the sidewalk, then cars driving by, then the knowledge that other people simply exist in the same neighborhood as you. In an attempt to protect you from any possible threat, the brain over does it and attaches a fear and anxiety response to an increasing number of people, things, and situations. This increase in distressing stimuli leads to an ever shrinking geographic radius where you feel comfortable. Eventually, it feels like the only really safe place to be is at home, in bed, under the covers, preferably asleep. It can be debilitating.
During moments of extreme stress and anxiety, the brain does not do its best thinking -- it does quick thinking, but not necessarily effective thinking. This is a time for movement, not calm reflection. As far as the brain goes, we have evolved over the years to have 3 "types" of brains: lizard, primate, and human. Our lizard brain (hindbrain) is responsible for fight/flight/freeze. Super important for survival, this is the oldest and most primitive part of the brain. The primate brain (limbic system) is our emotional brain. This is where we experience many of our "big feelings" and begin to tell rudimentary stories about them. The human brain (neo-cortex) is where thinking, reasoning, and rationality occur. Unfortunately, anxiety tends to throw people into their monkey brain at best and their lizard brain at worst. This often leads to difficulty with taking the steps that are possible to actually assess whether or not there is really a threat in the first place. You know that person (or perhaps you are that person) who tells you they have a headache and then about 3 minutes (and a terrifying WebMD search) later has decided they have brain cancer? Welcome to the anxious mind. The anxious brain is less adept at taking a balanced perspective on things and places a premium on identifying all of the possible ways in which something could go wrong so that it can be prepared to quickly address any one of the 17 scenarios identified in the last 76 seconds. This thinking feels necessary but is actually more counter-productive because it just forces the body and the brain to mentally live through each of those 17 scary situations as if they are actually a reality.
So what can be done? Anxiety is one of the emotions that we label as "bad" but is actually incredibly necessary. The answer to intense or chronic anxiety is not to be constantly numb or to eliminate the experience of it. We need the ability to detect threat in the environment in order to have any hope of survival. In other words, we can't rip out the alarm system. What we can do, is take the steps necessary to more effectively calibrate the system so that it responds appropriately and with as few false alarms as possible. First and foremost, this work is aided by something you are already doing all day, everyday -- BREATHING. Seems too easy and for some, "new-agey", but is the best place to start. The body can't effectively be anxious and calm at the same time. If you notice an uptick in anxiety symptoms, one of the kindest things you can immediately do for yourself is take several deep breaths. This action sends a message to your brain that despite the triggering of its sympathetic nervous system, no immediate action is required and the body can resume use of its parasympathetic nervous system. This is akin to responding to your faulty house alarm by letting the alarm continue to sound while you search the house vs. turning off the noise before you go search. It DOES have an impact on how stressful the exact same process feels to have the incessant and terrifying beeping going on in the background. Engaging the parasympathetic nervous system will also help bring your neo-cortex online again which helps with effective problem solving, complex thinking and feeling "human" again.
Learning to calibrate the system is accomplished through a number of different means and through a range of therapeutic modalities. No matter which type of therapy you engage in, there will be some component of mindful observation of thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations as they respond to a range of internal and external stimuli to determine what level of response is appropriate and effective. Let me be clear, anxiety and its information are incredibly important and sometimes they do help lead to life-saving and protective measures. However, the number of times that this is true are far outweighed by the number of times when it is more of a false alarm. Listening to the body's alarm system helps to better sort out when it is necessary vs. when the system can be reset. In the observation and study of your personal alarm system, you are likely to begin noticing patterns, common themes, and historical underpinnings to present day situations that generate anxiety. Understanding what situations, feeling states, and bits of sensory input lead to anxious arousal helps to more effectively address the experience. For example, anxiety about flying can be addressed by having 3 margaritas every time you board a plane or through addressing how scary it is to feel like someone else is in control or through processing the bodily memory you have of a flight you took when you were 9 where the oxygen masks unexpectedly got released.
One of the major barriers to working with and through anxiety is that talking about anxiety tends to generate anxiety which is uncomfortable. Signing up to make yourself uncomfortable with the hope of eventually being less uncomfortable is a hard sell. However, life with unchecked and unobserved anxiety is miserable. Shining some light and understanding on how our alarm system is wired will be worth the initial (and ongoing) discomfort generated by this process even though there is a premium on avoiding that work. The process of calibrating your nervous system gets easier, more automatic, and more effective over time, with support, and with practice. Things will not always feel as hard and scary as they do right now and you will not always feel this alone.
For those not quite in a place of feeling ready to call in an alarm repair technician (therapist), there are other smaller steps that can be taken to help reduce the daily impact of anxiety on the brain and nervous system. Here are a few suggestions:
Sensory brain break: For those with run-away thoughts who need the ability to more quickly distract from distressing thoughts, I recommend a 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. Wherever you are, look around and identify 5 colors you can see, 4 textures you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
Deep breathing that includes counting: Breathe in to the count of 4, hold for 5, release for 6. Repeat 3 times.
Use a mindfulness app to promote daily breaks and reminders to keep an eye on stress throughout the day.
Talk about it! Externalizing anxious thoughts (even alone to yourself) helps the brain to get some distance from them and decide if it actually makes sense, or only really made sense in your brain.
No matter where you start, do what you can to take care of yourself and move you toward a better and less stressful connection between you and your alarm system.