Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. Some people experience it more frequently, in a way that interferes with functioning. Whether it is an occasional inconvenience or a daily struggle, learning tools to manage anxiety can be very helpful. Understanding how anxiety works in the body can help harness the power of the tools.
Anxiety is the body’s reaction to a perceived threat. It is a normal and good reaction when there really is a threat. Anxiety gives the body the energy to respond quickly to the threat. It is part of the sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” system.
All mammals have a sympathetic nervous system that helps them survive when being chased by a predator or facing a disaster. Humans, like all animals, need this response when real danger happens. But humans are a bit different.
The difference between humans and other mammals is that humans have a large thinking brain that can imagine danger when there really isn’t any. This imagining danger is what happens when we have nightmares and wake up with a pounding heart. But it also happens when we are worrying about events from the past or possible events in the future. Worrying is our brain imagining danger.
The brain has an alarm system that turns on the sympathetic nervous system. The alarm system doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination. When someone worries about being chased by a lion the system responds in a similar way as if we were actually being chased by the lion. Also, the alarm system doesn’t distinguish between physical threats and psychological threats. So when we worry about people not liking us, or failing a test, or being late for work, the alarm system can go off and set the fight or flight into motion.
The sympathetic nervous system has many physical effects, including increased heart rate, increased breathing, dilation of the eyes, hypervigilance, increased muscle tension and increased stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisone, among others. Most of the effects are completely automatic. But there are two parts of this response that humans do have some control over: breathing and muscle tension.
Anxiety can be thought of as the body state in which these reactions are occurring. If a person changes this body state, they are changing the anxiety. If anxiety is the state in which there is muscle tension and short, fast breathing, then when the muscles relax and breathing becomes slow and deep, the anxiety is physiologically washed away. It is like turning on the light; a person doesn’t have to turn off the darkness. The darkness just disappears when the light is turned on. The anxiety will disappear when the state of the body is changed.
These are the most basic tools to reduce anxiety – deep breathing and muscle relaxation. Of course saying this doesn’t mean that it happens instantaneously. The system is more like a dimmer switch than a toggle switch. It can be turned on a little at a time, or a lot. It can be turned off a little at a time, or a lot.
If someone has been through repeated threats the system can become hyperactive. The alarm system can become over sensitive and turn on the fight or flight very easily. Fortunately, it can be retrained. Using these tools, along with some good therapy, someone can begin to retrain the alarm system to stop over reacting.
Because the alarm system is constantly scanning the body and the environment for danger it notices when the breathing is slowing down and when the muscles are relaxing and takes it as a cue to say everything must be okay, which turns off the system.
There is one other important tool for calming the system that comes back to that big human brain. In the same way that thinking can turn on the alarm system by imagining danger, thinking can turn off the alarm system. Imagining danger can turn it on and imagining safety and positivity can turn it off. This type of thinking is sometimes called positive self-talk, or affirmations, or simply, positive thinking.
While some people consider “positive thinking” as being fluffy feel-good stuff, when mental health professionals talk about using it therapeutically, they are not talking about wishful Pollyanna thinking. Turning off the alarm system through changes in thinking means recognizing when thoughts contain false danger and changing those thoughts. It refers to recognizing that the world won’t come to an end if we fail that test; that life will go on if this relationship ends; that no matter what life drops in our lap, we will handle it. Handling it may mean asking for help. It may mean being imperfect. It may mean making mistakes, but we know we are going to handle it and life will go on, no matter what. This is what it means to say “I’m okay.” “I am imperfect, but I will survive and move forward.”
The basic tools, therefore, include two physical tools – deep breathing and relaxing the muscles – and one mental tool – changing thinking from negative worry to positive reassurance. These actions can help turn off the fight or flight system and calm the overactive alarm system. As with any skill, it gets better with practice.
For those who need more intense treatment for mental health conditions, MidMichigan Health provides an intensive outpatient program called Psychiatric Partial Hospitalization Program at MidMichigan Medical Center – Gratiot. Those interested in more information about the PHP program may call (989) 466-3253. Those interested in more information on MidMichigan’s comprehensive behavioral health programs may visit www.midmichigan.org/mentalhealth.