We live in a culture of speed and instant fixes. Anyone or anything that gets in our way is considered a problem in our thinking. We do not tolerate discomfort and if pain or distress occurs, surely a professional will take care of the issue. Even though our bodies are the same as our ancient ancestors, the stressors are quite different. The ancient humans faced ravenous beasts and starvation, and modern man in America is plagued with financial woes and relationship discord. Although the problems are different, the internal alarm system referred to as anxiety is wired the same as in the early history of mankind. In the search for managing stress and anxiety, a brief study of the reasons for the symptoms (or loudness of the alarm) should help improve the unpleasant physiological responses.
To begin the study, it is critical to understand that anxiety symptoms begin when the amygdala, a light switch in the middle brain, is turned on. Like a light switch in a room, it is either on or off, and the instant the amygdala is triggered on, it will send out the very loud “noise” that tells the body to prepare to deal with danger. Most people can immediately feel the heart rate accelerate, but other symptoms occur as well. Expect to experience rapid, shallow breathing, tingling, numbness, dizziness, nausea, stomach aches, headaches, jittery speech, and other sensations. If you are in danger, the switching on of the sensations might save your life because you can run faster or fight with greater strength; however, if no danger is present, the symptoms are insidious and cause an undeniable desire to run away even when you look around and everyone else seems just fine. All humans have the anxiety switch, but some people turn it on when no threat actually exists. As mentioned earlier, the amygdala is in the middle or “animal” part of the brain where instincts live, but the human part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, technically sends that first message to turn on the alarm. Now we are dealing with two different parts of the brain, the human and the animal brain, and the human part might send the signal falsely. If you think about it, you know that it has to be true. Would you go into a haunted house at Halloween if you did not already see people entering one door and existing laughing from the other? Terrifying things are happening in there, but it is fake and you already know it.
So the question is “How does anxiety get turned on in the first place?”. The system ignites when the right cerebral cortex sees, hears, or thinks about things. The electricity travels to the left part of the human brain where problems are solved or have already been dealt with before. Stay in the human brain to the right and then the left and you are fine because anxiety lives in the middle brain and not in the human part. The sensations begin when a sight, sound, or thought starts in the right cerebral cortex and in transferring to the left, no solution exists. In a nano second the electricity drops into the middle brain and turns on the amygdala, and now your blood system is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. You want this to happen if you are in the presence of a real danger such as a tiger, but you do not want these sensations if you see a picture of a tiger in a book. Anxiety is your friend when you are threatened, but your enemy when you are imaging a threat that is not real. If you are a person who is bothered with anxiety in non-threatening situations, you can learn several quick tricks to settle down the brain and body, but you really need to make an appointment with a therapist and get to the root of the unresolved issues that continue to falsely trigger the alarm. Anxiety will lead to depression, suppressed immune system, short term memory loss, thinning skin, and poor quality of sleep. It can be fixed or dramatically improved, so seek help.
While you are waiting to see the therapist, there are some things you can do to slow down and sometimes stop the sensations at the onset. It is logical if you know what adrenaline and cortisol do to the body. Adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster, so taking a walk helps to use up the chemical. If you are sitting at your desk at work and cannot move at that moment, remember to add some fitness into your afternoon or evening. At the onset of symptoms, begin drinking water. Cortisol causes a thickening of the blood, and thick blood is hard to pump, so drinking a tall glass of water will help increase blood flow. A few swallows is not enough. It will need to be 8 oz or better. Secondly take a deep breath and hold it till the count of 10 seconds. Blow out slowly. Do this because the anxiety cycle involves the brain reading low oxygen when the shallow breathing of anxiety/panic begins to rob the blood of the normal supply of air. You can help to reset the system by drinking water and deep breathing so the blood moves well and is filled with the oxygen needed for the body to function. You will be using your human brain to control your animal brain. Now look around and determine if there really is a danger. Nobody else seem distressed? Well then, it is probably you starting your own signal of danger because of the troubles you are thinking about. The “what if” thinking gets people all of the time. Drink the water, breathe deeply and slowly, and look around. Remind yourself that you are actually safe even though your body says “HELP”. The next part is where talking to a therapist is really helpful. If you are triggering this anxiety a lot, maybe you need some time with a person who is trained to help you recognize some changes that need to be made in your life.
This is all a simple explanation to an extremely complicated function of the brain, but the strategies are known to help. Love yourself enough to gain control of anxiety. There is help available and much information about the connection between anxiety management and improved Wellness as a better lifestyle and the confidence to deal with problems in your life. And while you are making these positive improvements, consider cutting out caffeine after lunch. It is a powerful drug and it will accelerate your heart rate. Did you just make that connection? Anxiety accelerates your heart rate and so does caffeine. Pat yourself on the back because you are on the road to better mental health.
Ginger Caudell, LPC is an Independent Contractor with Garrett Counseling who specializes in helping clients with relationships and the emotional strain caused by grief, fears, anxiety, stress, and depression.