Anxiety is like a ride on a static bike – your adrenalin surges, your heart rate races, your body sweats, your face goes red … but it doesn’t get you very far.
If only dealing with it was as simple as jumping off. Though anxiety and punching out a session on a static bike differ vastly in that respect, they both have something in common.
Both initiate an automatic physical response designed to provide, with the greatest precision, all that the body needs to deal with the task at hand – or, in the case of anxiety, the task it thinks is at hand.
The most important step to controlling anxiety is understanding where it comes from and why it’s there.
Anxiety is the overprotective parent that fights with gladiatorial heart to keep us safe. The problem is that sometimes, its vigilance switches into hyperdrive.
When something is a threat, the human body is instantly and automatically readied to run for its life or fight for it. This response is the ‘fight or flight’ response and it has been hardwired into the human brain. ‘Fight or flight’ is a primitive response – all action and not a lot of thought. Reason and rationality are quite useless against it.
The human brain has perfected the response over thousands of years. Back in the days of cavemen, cavewomen and cave wild animals, humans needed a quick physical response to avoid being dinner. Fast forward to a time of doors, locks and no sabre tooth tigers, and the need for a physical response is significantly less.
Despite this, the part of the human brain that has been mastering the flight or fight response for thousands of years is still just as active and on guard as ever. It’s blind to the specifics of the threat, opting to act first and ask questions later, if at all.
It continues to respond as though every signal or tension from the environment is a risk to our self-preservation.
Dealing With Anxiety – Taking the Power Back
In the face of a real threat, the fight or flight response would be a masterful, magnificent ally, organising our body with astounding speed and precision to maximise the chances of survival. If it was created by a human hand, we’d be swooning over the genius of the design – until the time came that we realised the ‘on’ switch was difficult to control, firing up arbitrarily and mostly without reason.
The fight or flight response comes from a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, and it’s triggered as soon as danger is perceived. Sometimes the danger is real but most often it’s not. As soon as it’s triggered, the hypothalamus instantly sets off a series of nerve cell firings and chemical releases to prepare our body to run for our lives or fight for it.
Recognising the physical signs that you are in a fight or flight response, and understanding where those physical symptoms come from is critical and extremely powerful in turning anxiety around.
If you can think of anxiety as the fight or flight response trying to do its job, the symptoms will soon pass. But if you take them as evidence that there is something to be feared (such as the presence of a real threat, the beginning of a heart attack, a sign that you are about to make a fool of yourself) then you will give your anxiety fuel and the symptoms will persevere.
Understanding the physical symptoms is the first and most critical step in getting control of anxiety. So here we go …
- When there’s a perceived danger a signal travels from the environment to the amygdala, a primitive structure in the hypothalamus (a part of the brain), that automatically and instantly triggers a fight or flight response.
- The body is surged with stress hormones – adrenaline and noradrenaline – to provide the body with the physical resources to fight or flee.
- Breathing changes from slow breaths deep in the belly to rapid breathing high in the chest to supply the body with oxygen to fuel the fight or flight response.
» You might feel a shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, or flushing.
- If the oxygen isn’t expended through fighting or fleeing, the oxygen guilds up.
» You might experience dizziness, confusion, hot flashes and a sense of unreality.
- Heartbeat and heart rate increase to efficiently deliver oxygen around the body.
» This can feel like you’re about to have a heart attack.
- Blood pressure increases to get the blood to the large muscles of the arm (preparation to fight) and the legs (preparation to fight);
» Muscles might feel tense.
- Perspiration increases to prevent the body overheating.
» You might feel clammy or sweaty.
- Pupils dilate to allow in more light and improve visual awareness long distance to find the escape route.
» Your vision might blur, particularly close up.
- Veins in the skin constrict to send more blood to the major muscle groups.
» This leaves less blood in the skin for warmth and can bring on the ‘chill’ that is sometimes associated with fear.
- Blood flow is diverted from fingers and toes to where it is more needed, and to decrease the chances of bleeding to death should the response be ‘fight’.
» This can cause paleness, tingling and ‘cold feet’.
- The digestive system shuts down so that nutrients and oxygen are diverted to the limbs and muscles that will be activated in the event of fight or flight.
» Your mouth might feel dry, you might get the feeling of butterflies in your belly and you might experience nausea and/or constipation.
- The brain gets busy focusing on the big picture – to find the threat and plan a way out.
» This may lead to difficulty focusing on small details.
The symptoms of anxiety all have a physiological basis. They have been called to action by the fight or flight response and each has a very specific and very important part to play in ensuring our survival.
The problem however, is that for the most part there is no threat to our survival. Nothing to fight. Nothing to flee.
The fight or flight response is primitive: always automatic but not always accurate. Most of the time when it’s triggered there is actually no threat.
The amygdala, the part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response, can’t tell the difference between a real threat and a non-real threat. A threat is a threat, whether real or imagined, and all are responded to as though they are a real and immediate danger to our physical safety.
That’s where you come in.
If there is no obvious need for fight or flight, your fight or flight response has been triggered unnecessarily.
The first thing to do is remind yourself of this. You’re not in danger. You’re not dying.
You’re body is just responding to a brain that has over-reacted a little. It happens to all of us from time to time. Everything you’re feeling is tied to the fight or flight response. In this context, the physical symptoms are perfectly normal, even if the need for fight or flight is unnecessary.
Next, turn your attention to your breathing. Part of the fight or flight response is rapid, shallow breathing. This causes an oversupply of oxygen and an increased heart rate and contributes to many of the physical symptoms.
When your breathing is under control, these physical symptoms will reverse.
Breathe deeply and slowly. Take a short pause between breathing out and breathing in. Do this 5 to 10 times. Take the breaths deep into your belly. Practice even on the good days so it’s there when you need it.
Slow deep breathing is a handbrake for anxiety. Remember though, your fight or flight response has been doing its thing for a while so it may take some practice.
If your anxiety could talk, it would say that it’s there to protect you – to get you ready for fight or flight. Problem is, sometimes it shows up when you don’t need protecting.
Knowing what anxiety is and the truth about where the symptoms are coming from is the first step in taking back charge. It may take some time – your anxiety might take some convincing that it’s over-reacting with the fight or flight thing, but with persistence, practice and patience you will find yourself back in control.
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I have struggled with anxiety for my entire life (especially social anxiety) and it has become worse since the birth of my second child three years ago. To be honest, I never really knew what “it” was called until I started doing research after he was born because I just felt “off.” I’ve never talked to a professional about it because I don’t health have insurance and can’t afford the fees to see someone. It feels like my insides are in knots and I’m on the verge of a panic attack every day. I am taking Ashagawanda to help me feel more balanced/calm and at first I noticed a difference, but not really anymore. Breathing exercise don’t seem to help. My husband is not understanding at all…he just tells me to take vitamin B, says I’m a bad mom, a bad wife, says I’m crazy, I need mental help, I’m retarded, my life would be fine if I just went out and made friends, if I took meds I would become addicted and only weak people take psychiatric drugs…the list goes on. Clearly, he’s not helping the situation. Wondering if you have any advice.
My first advice is to ignore everything your husband is telling you that causes you to feel any shame about what you are feeling. What you are feeling is completely understandable and very common. You are NOT crazy or anything else he is telling you. By the sounds of it, you are anxious and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Anxiety feels awful and can be very intrusive but it is manageable. Getting eight hours of sleep each night is important. I know how difficult that can be, but research has found anxiety and depression are more common in people who get less than 8 hours. Exercise and mindfulness are also important because they change the structure and function of the brain in ways that protect it against anxiety. You will find more articles on this link that will hopefully give you the information you need to manage your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. You are strong – anxiety doesn’t change that at all, and you have inside you the resources you need to manage this and feel better. Be patient and kind with yourself.
As a man I know that instead of saying “I’m sad” we say “I hate you” and rather than say “I’m afraid” we say “I’m pissed” and rather than admit fear, shame, helplessness, we cover it with Anger.
It’s a horrible quality and I’m not excusing it, just explaining it. Likely your husband is frustrated because he feels powerless to help you. He may want to but he doesn’t know the first thing to do so he’s lashing out to cover his insecurity and helplessness.
Does anxiety effect a person psychologically?
Anxiety makes people worry more, but it doesn’t make them any less capable, or great to be with in relationships. Here is an article that might help https://www.heysigmund.com/when-someone-you-love-has-anxiety/. All of us are effected by things psychologically, whether it’s by anxiety, history, the people around us, stress, life events. All of us experience anxiety on some level – it’s necessary for our survival, but it exists on a spectrum. We don’t all experience anxiety to the same degree or in the same way.
Please help me what should I do to overcome my anxiety because I experience this everyday. I felt chest pain and my blood pressure increase.
Thank you so much for your concern.
You will find articles on this link that will hopefully bring you some comfort and give you some strategies to manage your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. Exercise https://www.heysigmund.com/activity-restores-vital-neurochemical-protects-anxietyepression/, mindfulness https://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/, and a healthy diet are all important https://www.heysigmund.com/our-second-brain-and-stress-anxiety-depression-mood/. I understand how confusing anxiety can be, but it is very manageable. Take your time to go through the articles, and experiment with the strategy (or combination of strategies) that work best for you. I wish you all the best as you move forward.
I ordered you book “Hey Warrior” for my 9 year old granddaughter and she LOVES it. I really was hesitant to order sight unseen but it was worth every penny. Her 10 year old brother who doesn’t struggle with anxiety like she does, but does with anger, loved it too. It made such good sense to two intelligent children to whom I have been trying to teach mindfulness and breathing. Thank you for writing this sweet, smart book!
Alice thank you so much for letting me know. I’m so pleased your grandchildren are enjoying ‘Hey Warrior’. I hope they keep getting comfort and wisdom from reading it.
I haven’t been struggling with Anxiety for long but I really need some good advice. My mind is constantly racing about the smallest things, I always feel as if there’s something in my throat (even though I know there isnt) I worry about the smallest things. I feel like I’m seeing things weirdly and hearing things weirdly too. I do also feel trapped to my house because I had a panic attack whilst taking my dog a walk and now I’m afraid to go outside. I’m afraid to be on my own a lot of the time. I do suffer from panic attacks, especially when I eat because I have a fear of choking and I always feel as though there’s something wrong with me. Please help.
I have been struggling with anxiety for the past 7 years. I feel claustrophic and have the feeling of something heavy weighing on my chest (almost as if my lungs are cut in half) all day and everyday. I’m seeng a Psychiatrist and taking anti-depressants for the anxiety. I am still claustrophic and get panic attacks. Mindfulness, CBT and positive thinking are just not enough to control the physiological effects of my anxiety!
Lea, I can hear the distress that this is causing you. Sometimes anxiety can be really stubborn. Keep working with your psychiatrist. If you have been with the same psychiatrist and on the same medication for a while and it’s not working, discuss trying something different with your doctor. Different things work for different people and the same thing won’t necessarily work for everyone. Keep fighting though. I wish you love and healing.
This is a great article. I look forward to the weekly emails.
Interestingly, I’ve known that Anxiety is a signal similar to pain as a signal. However, it had slipped from my a priori frontline mental state.
Thank you for bringing my most recent significant high anxieties of life situations into a new perspective.
The basic premise is this:
if you are highly anxious, use these mindfulness (I used biofeedback to acquire better mindful awareness) techniques to calm yourself,
then try to write down the best first cause of your anxiety.
the write down a few simple steps to begin changing that situation to a better one.
take one of these actions each time you feel the anxiety.
this should give you a sense of control — which our brains and minds Love!
And, acknowledge that it is one step at a time and that you can do it with simple awareness and simple actions.
What do you think, Hey Sigmund?
This is what I told myself after reading your article and putting myself into the mindset of Anxiety is a Signal to change.
Action will override anxiety.
Thank you for sharing this Clay. I think it’s great that you have found something that works for you.
I love your articles! They are the most on-point descriptions of anxiety and panic attacks I’ve read; and that creates a massive comfort to know that somebody out there understands. I’ve had a few bouts of anxiety over the last 15 years and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but knowledge is power and understanding your body’s reaction to stress is very helpful. I’m also a big believer in hypnotherapy. It’s helped me massively and quite similar to mindfulness. I will definitely be practicing mindfulness too from now on, as it’s very easy to let your anxious thoughts run away with you!!
I’m so pleased you’re enjoying the articles. Anxiety can be awful can’t it, but it sounds as though you have found some ways to manage it that work well for you. Mindfulness is great, and I’m pleased you’re going to practice it. I hope it it brings you even more comfort.
I have suffered from anxiety all my life due to constantly living in the ‘fight & flight’ modes brought on by an abusive father, then husband, then finding myself homeless & unemployed after separation. I was not aware of mindfulness at the time, but I sought professional help and I also started to focus my attention more on nature. I took up bushwalking and photography. I have come a long way since then and I have taught myself how to manage my anxiety through calmness. Thank you Sigmund for now teaching me about mindfulness. I will now start doing this too, to add to my bag of tricks in a hope that I can be mentally healthy.
You’re welcome Louise. Mindfulness is amazing. I’m so pleased to hear that you’re going to give it a go. I hope it brings you some relief.
I am responding to Jo, who is 53 years old…. If you are reading something on a computer it means you are not in a truly desperate situation. It means you have things in your life you need to be grateful for. Once you are sincerely grateful, you can not keep happiness away! Imagine passing on from life and all that you can take with you is what you gave thanks for the day before. Namaste.
Caroline, to suggest that anxiety can be fixed with a good dose of gratitude is judgemental, unhelpful and ignorant. Anxiety is very real and gratitude does not change the physiology of this. We can be grateful and in pain at the same time and it is not for anyone else to judge another person’s struggle. One of the antidotes to pain is connection, not judgement. Perhaps it might be helpful to turn your some of your gratitude into compassion for your fellow humans.
This has been so helpful ,
You’re very welcome. I’m pleased it has helped you.
Contd …… I am 53 and have tried everything.Please help with any suggestions. All my pleasure has gone. Thank you
I am a great believer in mindfulness, therapy, exercise, healthy eating but I totally believe depression and/or anxiety can be a chemical imbalance helped by medication. I researched for a young, well trained psychiatrist at a teaching university hospital and she helped me immensely with 3 kinds of medicine. She listened to my story/background for an hour, did some therapy and then prescribed medication. After two trips back to her she found the best combination of medication.
Hello. I have had episodes of anxiety for the past 15 years. The latest has beeen the longest, 18 months of severe daily anxiety
I’m so sorry to hear that you are struggling like this. I know how awful anxiety can be when it takes hold. Have you seen a counsellor? Anxiety is generally very responsive to treatment. If you have tried counselling and it didn’t work, it may have been the fit between you and the counsellor. It’s like any relationship – what works for one won’t work for another so it might be worth trying someone else. I can really hear how much this is intruding into your life so I would really encourage you to try that. At home, try the measured outlined in the article. They can all make a difference but they aren’t a quick fix. Your anxiety has been doing what it’s doing for a while now and it will take a bit of muscle to turn it down – but you can do that, without a doubt. Try to incorporate mindfulness, exercise and breathing exercises daily and consider seeing a counsellor. I understand that at the moment it feels as though nothing will make a difference – I get that, but you can turn this around. I really hope you are able to find some comfort and I wish you all the very best.
Thank you. You have just given me tools that will change my life.
You’re very welcome. I’m so pleased to hear that this can help you. The right information can be a powerful thing can’t it.