I mentioned a while back that though I have been anxiety’s bitch for many years, I’m in remission. Anxiety is common in those who don’t fit neatly on the bell curve, whether because simply being different creates anxiety, or because people who are different are very often also sensitive sorts by nature.
It’s been a long journey to recovery – anxiety took me in its teeth very early on, and though I’ve never let it make decisions for me, it has inevitably shaped a lot of my life. I’d spoken to psychologists and counselors and been to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), but the turning point was meeting someone who made sense of the physiological processes of anxiety in the body; the autonomic nervous system and the hormones that regulate it.
Everyone knows about adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone, but noradrenaline is the second part of the picture. Whereas an adrenaline rush lasts about 20 minutes, noradrenaline can be produced in the system pretty much indefinitely. Adrenaline functions to give your body the boost to fight a danger or flee it, while noradrenaline follows up to keep the body alert for further danger.
However, the symptoms of these hormones in the system – sweating, palpitations, increased heart and breathing rate, pins and needles, paranoia, sleeplessness, etc – when there is no discernible physical cause, can be distressing by themselves. People naturally search for a reason for their symptoms, and as the symptoms mimic life-threatening physical conditions, the experience can be terrifying. It becomes a circular, self-feeding situation, where noradrenaline makes a person hypervigilant to the very symptoms the hormone itself is causing, which are appraised as a present danger, and in turn causes noradrenaline to be released in response to the perceived threat.
But noradrenaline and adrenaline have well-regulated functions, and will not kill us – their function is to keep us alive. In primal times, after a fight for water or food, noradrenaline released in large amounts (noradrenaline in smaller quantities is used by the body for normal autonomic function) would be the hormone to keep tribal members awake and vigilant, peripheral vision and hearing hyper alert for surprise attacks, the body’s way of ensuring survival during the exhaustion following a fight, when the adrenaline had worn off. This is their function, and it’s a successful strategy, evidenced by how successful our species is.
The way to crack the cycle is to observe it scientifically. Know what adrenaline and noradrenaline are, and their functions – adrenaline causes pins and needles, tingling, etc, in simple terms by causing the body to become over-oxygenated. This can occur from hyperventilation, but not necessarily. In preparation for danger, the arteries open and allow increased blood flow, the heart rate increases, blood flow to the digestive system decreases, and the bowels may be evacuated. Noradrenaline keeps the body alert through high arousal of the senses, attention to the peripheral vision and hyper vigilance towards any sign of potential danger, including attention to physical symptoms.
Then, with this knowledge, step into the third person and observe and identify their effects on your body when you experience them, knowing that while unpleasant, the symptoms will not harm you. Noradrenaline is released when the body is unsure whether danger might still be lurking, so merely understanding the physical process your body is experiencing will give the answer that no clear and present danger exists.
But the brain is designed to run as automatically as possible, so that conscious thought can be directed to the most relevant issues. This means that initially your thoughts will tend to the same fearful patterns, but these pathways can be rewritten by conscious effort and practice. For myself, even knowing the science, it took a while for the knowledge to filter through and become my own. One way I made it my own was by observing my inner dialogue; how I saw my symptoms, and by extension, my body, as hostile to “me” (very dualistic). In simple but effective fashion, I deliberately changed the conversation to one of encouragement, acceptance, self-love and gratitude. Because the intention is to reach the subconscious and make new living arrangements with it, so to speak, it doesn’t matter what words are used or how silly they sound, as long as they resonate with your conscious mind.
Distressingly, I noticed that after many years in vexatious living circumstances, the physical symptoms of anxiety increased after I found my bliss. I was frankly disappointed. Why would I feel worse when my situation was so much better?
Then I realised that even though my former circumstances had not been the genesis of my relationship with anxiety, while I was in them, my stress had had a physical situation to refer to, but when I was out of it and happy I still had old physiological habits which hadn’t been kicked, thus I had free-floating anxiety that didn’t have anything to refer to, and this latched on to anything going, whether it be driving my kids to school or watching a movie.
I think this was another part of what my mentor had been trying to explain. Certain events, experiences, neurotypes, will bring about particular responses in the brain and body. Understanding that our reactions and responses are logical results to experiences and events is the beginning of healing and self-acceptance.
New research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case…. Kelly McGonigal talks about it at TED.
For anxious kids – From Worrier to Warrior: A Guide to Conquering Your Fears by Daniel B. Peters, Ph.D. “From Worrier to Warrior will teach you how to create your very own “toolbox” of ways to combat fear and anxiety to carry with you and conquer the Worry Monster at any time.”