What’s Behind Your Anxiety?
There is a lot of science out there about mental health and how to “deal with” whatever is plaguing you. Anxiety is no different. Who has time to read through all of those articles, let alone to figure out what is helpful and what is bullshit? Well, I do. I’m a curious person and I am a nerd, so reading research in my spare time is something I’ve done forever. That’s why I am compiling here all of the knowledge I’ve gained mostly through independent research, but also from my degrees.
Anxiety is considered to be a mental illness. This brings with it all sorts of connotations, most of them negative. Anxiety is really a built-in safety feature that has turned up the sensitivity. Think of it like your seat-belt sensor. It makes sure when you start driving that you and your passenger are all buckled in. That’s a good thing, right? But what if that sensor started going off as soon as you got into the car, or when you opened the door, or when you were buckled, but the belt was just a little too loose for it’s comfort? I can understand why you would want to disable that feature! That car would be the dinging seventh circle of hell. But disabling it may mean you forget to put on your seat-belt, which isn’t safe at all!
Our sympathetic nervous system response, known as the fight-flight-freeze response, is like the seat-belt sensor. It is there to keep you alive. To do that, it bypasses your prefrontal cortex–the thinking, rational, moral part of your brain–and gives control straight down to your limbic system and the amygdala, which are more closely connected with your brain stem, and thus your spinal cord and the rest of your body. This way the amygdala can send out the message to pump out adrenaline so that you can jump out of the way of the car speeding into the crosswalk you are currently inhabiting. Gosh, cars are seriously dangerous! The adrenaline and cortisol and other hormones and neurotransmitters do a lot of things to your body in order for it to move like it does.
- Heartbeat spikes
- Sweat glands open
- Digestion slows or stops
- Blood rushes to the muscles
- Blood vessels in non essential areas constrict
- Blood vessels in muscles dilate
This physical reaction may make us feel tense, angry, anxious. You might feel super focused and hyper-aware of your surroundings. All of this is to prepare you to fight, run away, or freeze. There are actually two more automatic reactions to danger that we as humans exhibit, but for now these three are sufficient.
Freeze = Trauma
The most interesting of these three reactions is the freeze. This is where the real cause of anxiety comes forward. When we freeze our body is recognizing that we can’t escape the danger and so it kicks the sympathetic nervous system into high gear. This creates the freeze or faint response where you might have some of these reactions:
- Dreamlike or disconnected from your body
- Trouble thinking and encoding long-term memory
- Numbness or dizziness
- Feeling trapped
- Eyes may glaze over, “She’s not there” type of look
- Decreased heart rate
- Decreased blood pressure
- Decreased breath rate
- Nausea or vomiting
- Dulled pain
- Trouble speaking
- Limp limbs
- Moving into the fetal position
When we go into this freeze response and we don’t process the event, we call this trauma. Anxiety can be due to serious or ongoing trauma.
The Cycle of Protection
Anxiety can also be due to the strengthening of the amygdala and sympathetic nervous response pathways. If we feel stressed out from homework, and our boss, and the family gathering next week, and the computer not working, all of these are creating mini fight-flight-freeze reactions. And thanks to neuroplasticity we know “what fires together, wires together”. This means that the more stressed we get, the more it reinforces the stress and anxiety response.
It’s a vicious cycle created from an invaluable automatic safety feature. Anxiety doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you; anxiety means you’ve just gotten really, really, really good at protecting yourself. Like the seat belt sensor that wants to ABSOLUTELY make sure you have your seat belt on, your brain is going to make sure you are not, in any way, in danger.
So what can you do to stop that dinging seat belt sensor from turning on when it doesn’t need to?
Tune in next time for Part 2!
Extra credit reading:
- The Polyvagal Theory Simplified
- Neuroplasticity, Mindsight, and Dr. Daniel Seigel
- Wire Together Fire Together: Time to Make New Connections?