You Can’t Think Your Way Out Of AnxietyFeb 24, 2021
If you watched my webinar “5 Steps To Beating Burnout”, you might be familiar with what I am talking about this week.
Anxiety is one of the most common problems that people talk about when we initially get together to talk about what is going on in their lives.
Plenty of them have tried to get rid of anxiety by seeing talk therapists, but, whilst talk therapy can be a very powerful treatment, it often misses the mark for people suffering from it.
The problem with anxiety is that it has such a powerful physical component to it.
When we talk about “feeling anxious” we do so because we are describing a condition that we are experiencing in our bodies.
A racing heart, increased breath rate, a heightened sense of urgency and stomach sensitivity are common physical sensations that accompany anxiety. But if we don’t get on top of these feelings then we can get in all sorts of trouble.
Anxiety causes us to lose our clarity of thought, to get stuck in rumination (that cycle of worried thoughts about the past or future), to withdraw from relationships and generally feel overwhelmed and out of control.
Left untreated anxiety can extend to full-blown panic attacks and can become a debilitating and life-changing condition.
And sadly anxiety levels are rising throughout the world as life becomes ever more complex and unsettling.
Now this suggests that we might find some answers by looking at why a complex world causes more anxiety, and if we begin to talk about the nervous system, we can start to unravel just why so many of us are so anxious so much of the time.
Our nervous system is not really designed for change, and certainly not for change on the level that we are seeing in modern life.
It’s A Complex World!
Technology has completely transformed all our lives, sometimes for the good, but often at a cost to our overall well-being. Add in climate change, global political upheaval and a coronavirus pandemic and we have a recipe for disaster.
You see your nervous system doesn’t like anything that is novel, uncontrollable and unpredictable. It likes simplicity, consistency and known challenges.
And when something comes along that challenges us and takes us out of our comfort zones, then our nervous system responds to force us to take action.
First up the amygdala in the brain is triggered and this acts as an alarm system, telling us to take notice as something is challenging the status quo.
Fight Or Flight
Like an animal that recognises threat, our system goes into what is commonly known as “fight or flight” and prepares us for escaping or fighting our way out of threat.
We release powerful chemicals such as epinephrine and norepinephrine which increase our heart rate and increase breathing. We don’t need to think logically or digest food when we are under threat, we just need to make a run for it or fight our way to safety, so blood is shuttled away from our brains and guts and into our extremities.
Now, this is a wonderful system to use in the short term, but the problem for us is that it is also a very primitive system and can’t differentiate between the very real life or death threat of a lion or simply an angry email from a client.
Our Stress Response
In our modern world, we are routinely flooded with situations that cause us to move into a stress response. Just think of the average day spent checking social media, answering emails, looking at the news, navigating traffic and public transport, or dealing with family members, colleagues and work issues.
If we continue to be overwhelmed by this stress response we begin to get brain fog, have stomach disorders, lose sleep and then become drained of energy, which starts the vicious cycle of more anxiety, more overwhelm and less ability to deal with it.
So coming to terms with the physical sensations is the first step. We need to recognise that our body is simply warning us about something in our environment and will continue to raise the alarm until we turn the alarm system off!
So how do we do that?
First of all by recognising that the physical sensations are simply a part of an alarm system, but also that we are in control of it and not the other way around.
Some of the most powerful techniques for dealing with anxiety are actually to move towards the physical sensations and welcome them. What generally happens is that when we feel anxious we immediately don’t like the feeling and try to avoid it, which invariably just makes the alarm system hype up even more – if you ignore an alarm it doesn’t simply turn off.
By starting to take an inventory of what sensations accompany anxiety, you can begin to take control back. Say to yourself “ok, I recognise that my heart is racing and my guts are churning and that’s ok”. Say to yourself “ I am experiencing anxiety and that’s ok”. If you can begin to separate yourself from the anxiety, then that’s the first hurdle dealt with.
A Coping Mechanism
As you begin to do this you will start to slowly change your coping mechanism. Once you start to recognise your stress response, you can take steps to deal with it. Using breathing techniques works for a lot of people as this allows your vagus nerve to take back control and lowers the amount of stress chemicals being released by your body.
Over the coming weeks I will address anxiety in more detail but for now, simply understand that anxiety is a natural response of your body trying to communicate that something needs to be paid attention to. As you begin to work with your body, rather than try and avoid the messages it wants to give you, you will gain control back and finally feel as if anxiety is a thing of the past.