Anxiety and the Body
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Have you ever wondered what anxiety actually is and what purpose it serves? Anxiety is the body's natural response to stress - most notably the stress of uncertainty of what is to come. This uncertainty is perceived as a threat that triggers a physiological stress response. Our hearts beat faster, our breathing changes and our muscles tense up as adrenaline and cortisol are introduced into our bloodstream to maximise our odds of escape from this perceived threat. This response is perfectly normal and one which we all experience to some degree every day of our lives. A presentation at work, an exam at school, meeting someone new, waiting for news on a loved one who is in the hospital. In most cases these stresses are momentary; ie. they are there in the moment only and when the perceived threat passes, so too does the feeling of anxiety.
On occasion, we experience something more life-threatening. Imagine you're crossing the road and misjudge the speed of the oncoming car and there is a near miss. The stress response drives us to action to get us out of the way fast. Adrenaline is pumped into the body, oxygen through the blood supply is rushed to the fast-twitch muscle fibres so that we can respond as fast as possible and get to safety. The part of the brain responsible for logic and reason is turned down or off to give control of the body to part of the brain that is responsible for the instinctual desire to survive. There is no need to think about whether or not you need to get out of the way, you just do it. Once you're on the other side of the road your body can come down from high alert but it may take a few seconds or a few minutes. You may feel full of nervous energy, your heart may still be thumping, your breathing heavy and you may even feel a tingling in your limbs. For many of us, this feeling diminishes as the brain realises that the threat has passed, and it starts to regulate us back into balance.
What happens if the body gets stuck in this state? If you are someone who suffers from acute anxiety, the body goes into a state of high alert regardless of the size of the threat but remains in this state for a prolonged period of time even when that perceived threat has passed. It can be anything from a car accident to thinking about what to cook for dinner. The part of the brain responsible for logic and reason has been turned off in favour of expending all your energy on survival. If that part of the brain is not accessible to you, then that means that understanding why you feel anxious or panicky is not available to you either. It's simply not a priority for your brain at that moment. This sense of feeling out of control on top of the uncomfortable physical sensations creates a feedback loop that feeds the anxiety which in turn intensifies the physiological responses which makes you feel even more out of control.
So what do we do about it?
Understanding. At the time of high anxiety or a panic attack, you're physiologically unable to think your way out of it. Some people, therefore, find it really helpful to learn about the mechanics of what their bodies are doing so that when it does happen, and they can't access that part of their brain, they can access their memories and recall what they've learned about the body's stress response. The more you are able to manage the panic attacks and anxiety the less time you spend in that state. If you dig a little deeper with the help of a counsellor you can start to identify the triggers of your anxiety attacks. The more you are able to process your triggers and past experiences, the more likely you are to be able to respond appropriately to future stressors.
Breathing is a natural regulator. You may often hear people telling you to take a deep breath. At the time you might think, "Stop telling me to breathe!" but breathing deeply has a physiological effect. It helps to convince the instinctual part of your brain that you are not in danger anymore. If you're running out of the road to avoid being hit by a car you're unlikely to take a deep, relaxing breath while doing so. Your brain knows this and so by breathing deeply, you're telling it that there is no threat and that it can stand down from alert. This in turn triggers the logic and reason part of the brain to start to take back control of the body's systems.
Distraction works much the same way as breathing does. If you can show your brain that you are not in danger, it helps to regulate it. There are some great grounding exercises that can be done/ For example, where you're standing or sitting notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. If you have the time to do that, then you're clearly not running from danger. There are a variety of things you can try, from specific grounding techniques to simply counting the loose change in your purse or wallet. It may take a bit of trial and error to see what works for you. Movement can be a great way to get rid of energy. In my example of dodging a car while crossing the road, I mentioned that someone might feel a lot of nervous energy when they get to the other side and realise what just happened or what may have happened in a worst-case scenario. The energy produced by the stress response has to go somewhere. The next time you watch a David Attenborough wildlife documentary have a close look at the antelope for example. They're munching away at the grass when they think they hear something; an approaching predator. They become very still and alert. After a few seconds, they turn back to eating the grass. If you watch their backs you'll see them have a quick shake. The next time you take your dog to the vet, watch to see what they do when they come out after the consultation. You can also watch a scare prank video on YouTube and note the different responses people have to being frightened. Some jump up and down, some scream and some become angry and lash out. This is the energy release. In all cases, the stress response has been activated and when the perceived threat has passed, that excess adrenaline needs to go somewhere. When you feel that excess energy and you want to regulate yourself you can do a similar thing. You can literally shake it off, go for a walk, jump up and down, scream into a pillow or run up and down the stairs a few times. There are cases where people are unable to release this trauma-induced energy at the time of the stress response. Car crash victims who are trapped, sexual abuse or rape victims, domestic violence survivors etc. may have needed to suppress their natural response in order to survive at that moment. They are unable to process the emotional impact of their experience at the time of the event. These experiences may have happened decades ago and the energy from that time is still trapped in the body, still demanding to be processed and released. Counselling and in particular counsellors who work somatically (with the body) can be of great benefit in helping to regulate the body now because it was not able to be regulated at the time of the trauma. If you want to read more about this I can recommend "The Body Keeps the Score" by Bessel van de Kolk or Peter Levine's "Waking the Tiger." If you want to learn how this energy can manifest in physical illness throughout your life then read "When the Body Says No" by Gabor Mate.