Anxiety = your body trying to protect you!
When we talk about anxiety, that experience of unease, distress and/or panic, we are not just referring to a cognitive experience merely involving thoughts. Let’s think about it: aren’t we actually “experiencing” anxiety? Yes – we don’t just think anxiously, we also feel it in the body!
In her book “Unf*ck your brain”, the author Faith G. Harper defines anxiety as a state of body disequilibrium – so we have decided to borrow this concept and use the definition of “off-balance experience” to describe anxiety and panic states.
Why does the body do that to us? The body demands attention because it’s trying to protect us! We are wired to have strong responses because they keep us alive! Feeling anxious is a survival skill. Basically, the body pushes us in to an off-balance state in the attempt of keeping us safe!
The off-balance experience from a biological perspective
If something triggers an anxiety response your brain releases chemicals such as Norepinephrine and Cortisol, which let your body know that you need protection.
Norepinephrine = prepares you for action and increases your focus and attention!
Cortisol= released with norepinephrine, creates strong memory associations with mood for you to recognise what you should be avoiding in the future.
Norepinephrine + Cortisol = active fighting skills!
Now, this is actually pretty cool, if you think that hormonal and physiological changes (your heart rate gets faster, which increases oxygen flow to your major muscles, your hearing sharpens etc.) allow you to act quickly so you can protect yourself. It’s a survival instinct that our ancient ancestors developed many years ago.
The real problem is when this response becomes chronic and gets activated by neutral triggers.
To combat anxiety and panic attacks, you need to:
recognise the messages in the here and now moment
do something to metabolise these chemicals
The body communicates with this sort of messages:
irritability and anger,
sense of helpfulness,
obsessive and compulsive behaviours,
body tension (especially neck tension),
troubles falling asleep or staying asleep, inability to rest,
shortness in the breath,
Anxiety first-aid kit
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, these are some immediate strategies to help you slow down:
Give a name to your anxiety -examples are the mind-body thing, the radio doom and gloom, the monkey mind, the storytelling brain, etc.
Talk to yourself and say something like: “hey, hold on, this is the mind-body thing trying to protect me, all good, I am safe!”
Observe the signals and remind yourself that these symptoms are uncomfortable but are just messages, they are not life threatening. Reassure yourself that you've felt these feelings before and nothing bad happened to you.
Breath, breathing exercises help you to send your nervous system this message: “false alarm, you’re safe mate, all good here, relax, I’ve got this”.
Rewire your brain
An effective long term strategy is to retrain your brain to learn optimism and positive outlook – researchers have found that optimistic people bounce back more quickly if bad things happen to them, they believe that bad conditions are temporary conditions and they happen usually for external reasons - basically it’s not their fault!
They also recognise failure in one area rather than feeling they are bad at everything all the time! They take credit for good circumstances indicating that they are good people! Which basically means:
For optimistic people failure are events, not people, but success are people, not events.
You are probably thinking: “No way! I am not like that at all, this is impossible for me!”. Well, here is the thing: if we can learn helplessness and pessimism, then why we can’t learn optimism and positive outlook!
It’s as easy as the ABCDE
Finally, we want to leave you with a practical tool to help you copying with off-balance states, it is called the ABCDE Method, a simple exercise developed by Albert Ellis within which people can examine their internal processes in a new way.
When you learn how to systematically break down events into clear steps, you will begin to notice yourself gaining back control.
Think about last time you felt off-balance (anxious) and write down notes for each of the five letters:
A. ADVERSITY or ACTIVATING EVENT: what triggered your anxiety response, just describe what happened.
B. BELIEFS: what do you HONESTLY believe about this event or adversity, what was your self-talk. We all tell ourselves stories about what events mean. For the moment, avoid judging your beliefs as “right” or “wrong” and simply notice what they are. A belief is generally “irrational” when it lacks clear evidence, is overgeneralised, or based on faulty reasoning. Example: “I always get taken advantage of like this – it’s not fair”.
C. CONSEQUENCES: how you reacted to the situation and to your beliefs, the emotional consequences, how these thoughts affected you. Consequences can take behavioural and emotional forms. Sometimes we observe consequences externally, such as noticing that another person is lashing out at us or withdrawing from us. Other times, consequences are internal. Example: Regret, disappointment, and withdrawal from the friend. Refusal to give in to friend’s expectations).
D. DISPUTATION: challenge the beliefs and argue with the “monkey mind”- or whatever is the name you gave it - and find another way for copying, this is when you create a new story. This step involves actively disputing harmful belief systems through mindfully examining, questioning, and challenging them. Prepare to enter the “disputation phase” by asking yourself the following six questions:
o Does this belief fit with reality?
o Does this belief support the achievement of constructive interests and goals?
o Does this belief help foster positive/healthy relationships?
o Does this belief seem reasonable and logical given the context in which it occurred?
o Is this belief generally detrimental or generally helpful?
E. EFFECTS: once you identify and clarify your emotionally charged beliefs about a situation, you can begin to create an alternative line of thinking that is based on more reasonable beliefs. Effective new beliefs replace the old irrational ones.
It is important to remember that the ABCDE method will not defer normal/healthy emotions, such as appropriate loss and realistic fears. This means that you cannot use this strategy to cheat because these emotions and their related sensations in the body are providing you with important information about the situation. In these cases, we invite you to mindfully attend to your experience and receive the lessons embedded within those emotions.
Sources and resources:
“Unf*ck Your Brain: Using Science to Get Over Anxiety, Depression, Anger, Freak-Outs, and Triggers”, by Faith G. Harper