Updated: Apr 21
In times of uncertainty, like now (Covid -19 2020) I am certain that having a better understanding of how the brain works and affects behaviour will help you to recognise if you are, maybe silently, suffering from anxiety, stress or worry. Acknowledging this enables us to be open to change our mind and put strategies in place to be in control, find calm and live every day anxiety free. How empowering will that be?
What we do right now, how we feel, how we act can have a far reaching effect on more than just ourselves.
Is it anxiety, stress or worry?
Just take a moment to think about how you are feeling, what you are feeling and where you are feeling it, maybe you have a behaviour that you do such as excess drinking, smoking, gambling, drugs, shopping. What does it stop you doing?
Worry happens in the mind - negative thoughts
Stress happens in the body - our fight/flight/freeze response (physical symptoms)
Anxiety happens in the mind and body.
Anxiety has many forms, whether it be panic, phobias, social anxiety, OCD, post traumatic stress disorder or general anxiety disorder. It is nothing more than a coping mechanism that is attempting to remove us from a perceived threat or dangerous situation. In many ways anxiety it is actually our own internal safety valve when our brain can't meet the moment. What causes anxiety is nothing more complex than stress or “maxed” out stress, either caused by a single event or a build up overtime of smaller events. Overwhelm occurs when we have too much on our plate and more keeps coming, have you ever said “ I can’t cope with this anymore” or “I need to run”. When we have anxiety the brain is reading a situation as dangerous or unsafe and creating a response in your brain and body to remove you from that situation. The problem is you don’t like the anxiety responses as they don’t feel safe. It’s like an alarm bell, but the alarm bell is going off most of the time even when there isn’t any fire. Once this happens it’s like a bad habit. Anything that makes you feel in any way out of control or not safe, the brain/body switches on the anxiety response; even though you may know better and not want it to happen.
So to understand this a little bit more let’s have a look at the evolution of the brain, or sometimes known as the triune brain, which is very simply divided into 3 areas
1. The brain stem/hind brain or in evolutionary terms the reptilian brain controls our basic regulatory functions to survive and sustain life: breathing, swallowing, heart rate, blood pressure, consciousness etc
2. The Limbic system or in evolutionary terms the mammalian brain is the emotional centre which has several components for example:
The amygdala this processes fear, arouses us, motivates us to act and also triggers anger. It alerts us to danger and activates the fight or flight response. It also attaches emotional content to our memories and plays an important role in how those memories are stored. Memories with a strong emotional meaning tend to stick. It also plays a key role in forming new memories specifically related to fear. Fearful memories are formed after only a few repetitions.
The hippocampus plays an essential role of the formation and storing of memories and converts short term into long term memories. These can evoke emotions too as the hippocampus helps us associate memories with various senses. If the hippocampus is damaged and you can’t form new memories your old ones are still intact.
The hypothalamus in the context of emotion regulates the autonomic nervous system and connects the hormonal and nervous systems, release of certain hormones such as adrenaline and regulation of blood pressure, body temperature.
The thalamus just above the brain stem is like a sensory relay station for everything you see, hear, taste and touch that comes through your nerves, it then redirects them to the appropriate areas of your brain. Smells via the nose, relay to a certain areas of the brain which are close to areas that regulate emotions, which explains why smells can evoke very powerful memories and bring you back to a certain event.
3. The pre-frontal cortex in mammals is at its most advanced in humans and this is what separates us from other mammals. It is involved in higher brain functions, thinking, planning, reasoning, language processing and interpreting and processing inputs from our senses.
There’s a flow of commands between all 3 layers.
Imagine you have a fight/flight/freeze situation - the limbic system can activate the reptilian brain for the heart to beat faster, induces greater production of adrenaline, that is, you have a stress response. For some people their thalamus stays on high alert, activating the stress response with anything remotely reminiscent of the original threat. As there is no concept of time in this area, something that happened say 40 years ago, may feel like it is happening right now, and your memory is based on your interpretation of that event with the information you had at that time and it got imprinted. People get stuck in this habit of anxiety because all the wires got crossed in this area that was never meant to store long-term memories.
Likewise your pre-frontal cortex can influence your reptilian brain if perhaps you see something distressing on the news ( that is not affecting you personally) your cognitive state affects your reptilian state and you respond with a stress response even though there is actually no danger to you.
Is it just our advanced pre-frontal cortex that separates us from other mammals?
What separates Giraffes from humans? because after all we are all mammals.
Every decision the giraffe makes provides an immediate benefit to his life.
If he is hungry he walks over to a tree and starts munching.
If he feels a storm coming on he takes shelter
If he smells or spots a lion he runs away.
He lives in an Immediate Return Environment - because his actions deliver clear and immediate outcomes.
Thousands of years ago when we lived in an immediate return environment, stress and anxiety were useful emotions because they helped us take action in the face of immediate problems.
You haven’t drunk any water today, you feel stressed and dehydrated, you find water, stress is relieved.
Wild animals rarely experience chronic stress ( when left to their natural environment and order of things) - a deer may get startled in the forest, it takes off, as soon as the threat is gone it returns and continues grazing it does not continue to tie itself in knots like humans do.
Some of the decisions we make today will not benefit us immediately but will provide a benefit later, maybe some years later. And this is known as a Delayed Return Environment (DRE). Our brains didn’t evolve in a DRE but that’s where we find ourselves today and for some of us this means living in chronic stress.
Our brain gets stuck in What if scenarios, we bypass the present and live our future based on past negative experiences.
What do we need to do?
Shift worry away from things that may never happen. Live in the present moment.
Instead of worrying about living longer focus on taking a walk or doing some exercise everyday. Instead of worrying about losing weight for that event sometime in the future, focus on cooking a healthy meal tonight and eating healthily tomorrow.
Make sure your daily routine both rewards you right away and resolves your future “problems
Can we overcome Anxiety?
Yes we can. Normally a smoke alarm goes off when there is actually smoke, the batteries need changing or the wires need to be checked. But when our brain is in constant high alert our stress response is going off all the time. Just like we change the batteries regularly at home so the smoke alarm is functioning normally, we can do the same with our brain. We rewire it, retrain our brain away from constant red alert to normal functioning levels of awareness.
The first step
The first step is to acknowledge that your brain is trying to help you but the anxiety is a false message from your brain. When your coping threshold has been reached overwhelm resulted and your brain/ body has done the safety response of anxiety and because this works so well for you the brain/body started using this as the default coping mechanism and anxiety has become a chronic problem. The brain’s got confused on what and what not to fear. We need to reteach your brain what is normal; giving less and less importance to the anxiety and fear responses and letting your brain know that you are safe and OK. The fastest way to do this is to acknowledge that the anxiety is trying to protect you and keep you safe. It’s just reading the situations wrong, it’s a false alarm, a false message from your brain. Acknowledge your anxiety in whatever way feels comfortable for you. For example: Say to the anxiety “ Ahh I know what you’re all about. I understand you, although I appreciate you have been trying to help me, it’s not working anymore so you are going to have to change, because I have made the decision to ignore your noise and take back control because you’re a false message from my brain” or something like “ Oh it’s you again, false alarm, you can relax, you got your wires crossed” No matter how long you have had it, you can get some relief and take back control. Overcoming this can be one of the most empowering and life affirming experiences you can have. Just imagine being in control and having the freedom to do what you want to do.
Want to know more, then contact me for a free discovery consultation, we can do this via zoom or on the phone if you'd prefer www.apthypnotherapy.com
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