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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