Anxiety triggers our sympathetic nervous system which manifests in our physical body, eliciting sensations similar to the adrenaline rush of a roller coaster. Understanding how anxiety affects our bodies, our minds, and our behaviors is key to managing it effectively.
The Physiology of Anxiety: A Roller Coaster Ride
When faced with anxiety, our bodies react in distinct ways:
- Shaky Hands and Heart Palpitations: Our hands tremble and our heart races, mirroring the sensations of a thrilling ride.
- The Sympathetic Nervous System: Just like a roller coaster activates our fight-or-flight response, anxiety stirs our sympathetic nervous system into action.
- Return to Homeostasis: After the sympathetic response is triggered, it ordinarily takes between 2 to 4 minutes for the body to regain its balance and for anxiety-induced symptoms to fade.
Anxiety and the Racing Mind
Anxiety doesn’t just play out physically. When these symptoms appear suddenly, such as before bedtime, our minds race to find explanations. We might think, “Is it because I’ve had too much coffee or not enough? Is it my job, my friends, or should I break up with my partner?” Our mind then tries to rationalize the physiological state we are in.
This introspection often amplifies our anxiety. The more our mind attempts to control our bodily responses, feelings, and sensations, the more our anxiety escalates. Think about being told to “calm down” when you’re agitated. Rather than helping, it intensifies the feeling. When we try to control or rationalize our anxiety, we often spiral further into it.
The Cognitive Impact of Anxiety
Anxiety: At its core, anxiety is a natural response to perceived threats. It’s a survival mechanism that has evolved to ensure our readiness to face dangers. However, when anxiety becomes chronic or disproportionate to the actual threat, it can have debilitating effects on our cognition.
The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC): The PFC is located in the anterior part of the frontal lobes and is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, planning, reasoning, and impulse control. Essentially, it’s the “control center” for cognitive processes, helping us navigate complex tasks and make sense of the world around us.
Cognitive Impact of Anxiety on the PFC:
Impaired Decision Making: High levels of anxiety can reduce the efficiency of the PFC, making it harder for individuals to evaluate situations accurately and make rational decisions. This is because anxiety tends to heighten emotional responses, which can overshadow logical reasoning. An anxious individual might struggle with options and overanalyze situations, leading to paralysis by analysis or rushed, impulsive decisions.
Difficulty in Concentrating: Overactivation of the amygdala, a region in the brain responsible for emotional responses, during anxiety can lead to the underactivation of the PFC. This imbalance might result in an individual finding it challenging to concentrate or focus on tasks at hand. The mind often flits from one worry to another, leading to decreased productivity and effectiveness.
Reduced Working Memory Capacity: Working memory, a temporary storage system that holds information for short-term use and manipulation, is also governed by the PFC. Elevated anxiety can decrease working memory capacity, making it harder to hold and process information simultaneously. This can impact daily activities, like following conversations, understanding complex instructions, or solving problems.
Impulse Control Issues: The PFC plays a crucial role in inhibiting inappropriate or unwanted behaviors. With increased anxiety compromising PFC functionality, impulse control might weaken, leading individuals to act without thinking or struggle with self-control.
Difficulty in Planning and Organizing: Tasks that require forward-thinking, organizing, or strategizing become more challenging when the PFC is not operating at its optimal level due to anxiety. People may procrastinate, feel overwhelmed, or simply avoid tasks altogether.
Changing Our Relationship With Anxiety
The human body and brain have inherent resilience and adaptive capacities. Anxiety, while it can dominate our thoughts and feelings, is also something we can learn to understand and navigate through various self-awareness and mindfulness techniques. The way to soothe anxiety is by changing our relationship with it and softening up to it rather than resisting and fighting it. Here are some steps to stay present and curious with anxiety:
- Distancing from Thoughts: Often, anxiety is exacerbated by the narrative we build in our heads, a series of “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios. One way to break this cycle is to distance oneself from these thoughts, recognizing them as just thoughts, and not concrete realities. This perspective helps in reducing the intensity of the emotional reaction they evoke.
- Letting Thoughts Go: Instead of ruminating or trying to dissect each anxious thought, allowing them to come and go without judgment can be liberating. The idea is not to resist or suppress them, but rather to observe them without attachment, like watching clouds drift across the sky.
- Returning to the Body: Our body is always in the present moment, unlike our mind, which can wander into the past or future. By focusing on the sensations in our body — like our breathing, the feel of the ground beneath our feet, or the rhythm of our heartbeat — we can anchor ourselves in the present. This can serve as a grounding technique to pull us out of spirals of anxious thinking.
- Curiosity and Presence: Instead of reacting to anxious sensations with fear or aversion, approaching them with curiosity changes the dynamic. “What does this anxiety feel like? Where do I feel it in my body?” Such questions can lead to a more observational and less judgmental stance.
- Being Gentle with Ourselves: Self-compassion is vital. Instead of berating ourselves for feeling anxious or getting lost in our thoughts, a gentle, understanding approach can be healing. Recognizing that everyone experiences anxiety to some degree and that it’s a natural human emotion can reduce the shame or guilt often associated with it.
- Understanding Sensations: Our bodies communicate with us through sensations. Instead of searching for answers in our overactive minds, listening to and understanding our body’s sensations can provide insights. Is the tightness in the chest a sign of suppressed emotions? Does the stomach’s fluttering indicate apprehension about an upcoming event? By fostering a deeper relationship with our body’s sensations, we can decode the underlying causes of our anxiety and address them more holistically.
Managing anxiety is not about eradicating it, but about understanding and navigating it. By shifting the focus from the mind’s tumultuous narratives to the body’s grounded sensations and adopting a kind, curious, and present stance, we can soothe anxiety and inch closer to a state of equilibrium or homeostasis. The answer, as mentioned, might not always be in the labyrinth of our thoughts, but in the simplicity of our body’s sensations and our relationship with them.
Evidence-based Strategies to Combat Anxiety
There are several proven methods to tackle anxiety:
1. Vagus Nerve Stimulation Exercises:
The vagus nerve plays a crucial role in our body’s autonomic nervous system, especially in the activation of the parasympathetic branch, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” functions. Stimulating the vagus nerve can lead to a reduction in stress and anxiety, thereby promoting a calmer state of mind. Some practical exercises to stimulate this nerve include gargling water, humming your favorite tune, taking a deep sigh, or engaging in gentle neck shaking. These simple techniques can potentially help in balancing and regulating our nervous system’s response.
2. Self-compassion and Loving-kindness Phrases:
One profound way to soothe oneself is through the practice of self-compassion. Placing a hand over your heart can be a symbolic gesture of self-care and self-love. Along with this, softly repeating loving-kindness phrases such as “May I feel safe; may I accept myself as I am; may I trust my decisions; may I make it through this day” can evoke feelings of comfort and reassurance.
3. Mindfulness and Defusion Exercises:
Mindfulness is the art of staying present, while defusion is about detaching from troubling thoughts. Techniques include visualizing your thoughts as clouds drifting by in the sky or writing them down and symbolically releasing them. Another approach might be to associate thoughts with core values and act in alignment with those values. For a lighter touch, try singing your thoughts in whimsical voices or writing them backward. The key is to notice the thought patterns without getting trapped in them.
4. Observer Self Exercises:
These practices help you practice non attachment and emphasize understanding oneself as an observer. Just as the weather continuously shifts, our thoughts and emotions are transient. In this approach, one visualizes oneself as the vast sky, unchanging and expansive, while the thoughts and emotions are mere passing clouds. Another metaphor is that of a chessboard: you are not the individual chess pieces, whether positive or negative, but the board that holds them all. This perspective allows for a detachment from overly identifying with fleeting emotions or thoughts.
5. Grounding and Anchoring Techniques:
Grounding exercises help you reconnect with the present moment. An effective technique is to firmly plant your feet on the ground and imagine roots extending from your soles, anchoring you deep into the earth. This visualization can offer a profound sense of connection and stability amidst internal turmoil.
6. Five Senses Mindfulness Exercise:
To reconnect with the present, engage all your senses. Deliberately note something you can touch, see, taste, smell, and hear. This multisensory awareness can serve as an anchor, drawing you away from distressing thoughts and immersing you fully in the current moment.
7. Taking Breaks and Utilizing Private Spaces:
Sometimes, the best way to cope with overwhelming situations, especially in public settings like workplaces, is to find a private space. Whether it’s a secluded corner, a park bench, or even a restroom, having a quiet place to pause, breathe, and apply these mindfulness and self-compassion techniques can be pivotal in managing anxiety and regaining composure.
A Gentle Approach to Manage Anxiety
Learning to navigate the complexity of the experience of anxiety is like learning a new language. Begin with baby steps, practice with those you trust, and gradually embrace the more challenging aspects. This paced approach ensures a more profound understanding and efficient handling of anxiety.
At the Bay Area CBT Center, we specialize in using CBT and evidence-based techniques to help people change their relationship to anxiety and find effective self-soothing techniques. Our licensed clinicians are experts in the field and offer individual counseling, group therapy, and couples therapy. We also offer in-person and online therapy, groups, and workshops.
In conclusion, anxiety, though formidable, is manageable. With an understanding of its mechanisms and a toolbox of evidence-based techniques, we can reclaim control and steer our lives in the direction of our values.