We all have an incredible survival mechanism that is hard-wired in our brains and nervous systems as our stress response. It is housed within the more ancient parts of our brains. This subcortical part of our brain helps us react fast and with power, to any perceived threat or danger when we need it.
This means we can access speed and strength to mobilise into either – fight, flight, freeze, flop or friend. We simply use whichever might work best in the given the stressful situation. Sometimes it’s safer to freeze, than fight for example; or better to run (flight) than freeze. This part of our brain is reactive, not reflective. It’s sometimes called our mammal or emotional brain. This starts an activation in our brain and nervous system.
With fear, our brain stem (an even more ancient part of our brain which maintains our heart and lungs functioning - sometimes called our reptilian brain) speeds up our heart rate and breathing. It can feel like our heart is pounding out of our chest and that we can hear it. Our breathing gets shallower and faster also. It can make our chest feel tight and that we feel we can’t breathe. We can also feel like we have a lump in our throat. Sometimes we stop breathing without even realising. We go cold with fear and then can feel hot. Our body demands extra oxygen in order to supply the big muscles in our legs and arms ready to fight or flight. Oxygenated blood gets directed away from our digestive system to where it’s more needed and we can feel a bit nauseated.
Because our muscles are primed a bit like other mammals when they’re scared we can feel tight in our shoulders, jaw, fists or neck. We can find we clench our teeth or may grind them at night making our jaws sore. This response can also leave us feeling tingly in our arms or face sometimes. We can feel like we need the loo urgently.
All these symptoms are our brain and nervous system's survival response.
These are perfectly appropriate and necessary responses if for example you’re another mammal, like an impala, and you see a lion's ears above the brush.
This response has been likened to a “smoke detector” - built in, to alert us of danger (Source Hey Warrior Karen Young). But, like a smoke detector the amygdala (fear centre) cannot detect the extent of danger – hypothetically whether it’s the “toast burning” or the “house is on fire”. It only alerts. So the limbic system's job is to detect perceived danger. It has no way of knowing is that it is a fact - really happening - or an anxious thought about something that might happen - the limbic response is the same. This is a fantastic system for reacting in a fast and non-thinking way when for example a very young children runs into a road and we react superfast to save them. That is our stress response at its best!
Unfortunately this also means that our ancient brain activates in a primal way to our modern day threats. In our world this is less lion, and more likely to be a reaction to another worry - for example worry about our relationships, our kids or parents, job security, work security, financial worry, cost of living fears, health scares or threats, illness and death of loved ones.
When this stress response is activated our more modern brain - our neocortex - sometimes called our human or logical brain which at this time of threat perceived is not really fundamental to our surviving so it “shuts down”. This is why in times of extreme anxiety or panic we can’t do things sequentially that we normally can with ease like start a car or make a cup of tea. Our thinking brain is offline.
This is how anxiety can become unhelpful. It overestimates the perception of danger and underestimates our ability to cope.
Because we also get a burst of adrenaline to help us survive, we can feel shaky and agitated inside. We can be more teary or antsy than usual.
We feel ill. Our bodies are built to react like this, but unlike the impala, we don’t run it out and therefore drain the adrenaline. We don’t shake it out like some other animals do. We often feel stuck in situations which keep us activated - like a toxic workplace or a relationship where we’re not getting needs met. Consider someone who is in a domestic abuse relationship or children in an unsafe home where they are abused or neglected - they will often be in this survival mode of hypervigilance almost constantly. The keep safe on guard part may need to be on to help the child survive.
This stress response works best for our example of the impala. If the impala manages to outrun the lion their nervous system regulates again. They return to a state of rest and they replenish the energy they have lost. The impala doesn’t continue with chronic anxiety – they don’t ruminate (depression) about why the lion targeted them or worry about what’s wrong with them! Neither does the impala stay in a heightened state on red alert to danger - staying up at night and watching out for the lion coming back, nor is their brain full of “what ifs”!
Anxiety comes in different forms - you’ve maybe heard of some: Agoraphobia; Social Anxiety Health anxiety; Obsessive Compulsive Disorder; Generalised Anxiety: Disorder; Phobias; PTSD and Panic.
If anxiety could talk it would say “something bad is going to happen and you can’t cope”. Anxiety is two pronged - it gives us a very physical response and also it makes us overthink. It predicts multiples of catastrophe and gives us lots and lots of “what ifs” - these are all negative. Anxiety doesn’t say “what if good things happen”... only bad. Our mind becomes our enemy and we tend to avoid and withdraw... staying away from the things or the situations that trigger making us feel so bad. Our worlds tend to get narrower. We avoid the things that activate our anxiety or "I feel unsafe" response. Anxiety is like a very convincing person who promises you will be safe if you listen to it and do what it says. The only thing is our world narrows so much that the only voice we hear is anxieties and soon nowhere feels safe – not our home our bedroom or even under our duvet.
In therapy work anxiety I begin with the body work (somatic) – grounding and breathing – work that helps our nervous system regulate. This metaphorically means pressing reset on the smoke detector in a way our brains and nervous systems can understand. We are helping the nervous system with the false alarms that anxiety is activating. Work may be on finding a calm place.
After we work on stabilisation like this and our logical brain (human brain) comes back online we can begin to challenge the thoughts. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for thoughts might involve challenging whether the prediction is a thought or a fact. We can identify the prediction and begin to be irreverent to it, question, find ways of not taking it as seriously and set out to prove it wrong, so as not to be constrained by the cruel ties of anxiety anymore.
Have you noticed how feeling joy or playfulness and fear can’t coexist together?
We need to feel safe in order to en-joy to fully relax and ideally feel connected. Anxiety is super serious and it steals our joy and self-belief. Therapy can help you face your fears and regain your life more fully again.
Take the Test
Click to download the GAD7 Stress and Anxiety Test (Microsoft Word, 12kb)