Anxiety is a perfectly natural and appropriate response to danger - it’s how we’ve survived as a species. It’s made up of the physical sensations we experience, and the emotions and thoughts that accompany those sensations. Understanding the physical response and recognising that it is perfectly normal can help us to manage those feelings and thoughts that increase anxiety.
The physical response
When faced with danger, the sympathetic nervous system is activated and our bodies are flooded with the adrenaline and cortisol hormones which generate physical responses to help us evade the danger. Our muscles tense, blood pressure increases to send more blood to the muscles and heart, and in turn the heart beats faster. As the blood supply normally needed for digestion is diverted to the limbs, digestion is suspended - our saliva dries up and the kidney, intestine and bladder functions stop, causing the muscles at the opening of the bladder and anus to relax. We breathe faster to get oxygen into our blood quickly, and we sweat to try to cool our bodies.
Once the danger has passed circulation returns to normal, digestion starts up again allowing the shaking and sick feeling to stop and the pounding heart to return to normal. The stress hormones are burned up by the action taken .
This finely tuned system was designed to deal with situations where we need to take physical action in order to survive. In today’s world many of the stresses we face are of a psychological nature - work deadlines, relationship difficulties, fears about illness - these stresses are equally hard to deal with but don’t require a physical response.
In these situations there is nowhere to run, no-one to fight, no physical response. An expectation that something will happen is created,. With each stressful event this expectation accumulates creating a physical stress which can push the body too far, manifesting in all sorts of ways - headaches, prolonged anxiety, a dependency on alcohol or other substances.
So, how is the response triggered and what else is happening?
The amygdala is the part of the brain that triggers the physical response when it senses danger. It’s a relatively primitive part of the brain and works by matching new events to patterns it already has stored - emotional memories and learned responses. It has to make an immediate decision to avoid potential danger quickly, so the matching is based on patterns and is relatively basic. In addition it initiates action before the more sophisticated thinking parts of the brain get a chance to contribute.
Once activated it then continues to suppress the higher functioning parts of the brain completely - this makes sense in many respects as there is no time to start thinking things through when faced with imminent danger, but it’s not so helpful when the threat is perceived rather than actual. Then the feelings aroused are not acted upon, the emotional arousal is maintained and we continue to operate without the benefit of higher level thought.
Imagine the exam scenario which an create anxiety for many people. Firstly you imagine taking the exam and not doing so well (danger), triggering a physical response and the associated feelings of fear and dread. When you actually sit the exam your amygdala pattern matches and identifies that sitting the exam is a threat, so triggering the physical response, preventing full access to the thinking brain. You find yourself unable to recall all the information that you had revised and were sure was firmly embedded in your memory. Now that the situation has occurred for real rather than being a worry, the amygdala is able to confirm it as a definite threat and is all the more ready to raise the alarm if it occurs again, and so the cycle continues and is reinforced.
Similarly anxiety can morph into panic attacks linked to particular situations or even phobias. Imagine - you are already feeling anxious as a result of money worries and an argument at work when you catch the bus to collect your child from school. The bus is delayed in traffic and your anxiety level increases as you realise you are going to be late collecting your child. You begin to imagine all sorts of scenarios as a result of being late, increasing your anxiety levels to such an extent that the physiological response is triggered and fuelled until eventually you are unable to breathe properly, heart is pounding, legs trembling - you begin to feel faint and sweat profusely - a full blown panic attack. The amygdala works with sensory knowledge - it won’t retain all the information leading up to the panic attack (money worries, argument at work etc), only that you were on a moving vehicle, which it stores as a potential threat. The the next time you get on the bus it pattern matches, identifies a threat and the panic attack is activated. Thus a phobia or anxiety response to buses is generated.
How does this knowledge help me and how can Hypnotherapy help?
What is important to recognise is that how we interpret our physical responses is a large part of how we experience them. The same sensations we experience when faced with danger - clammy hands, palpitations, butterflies in the tummy, are also activated when we do challenging activities that we enjoy, for example rock climbing or taking part in an amateur dramatics performance, or when we are attracted to someone. In these cases the sensations are the same but we perceive them as excitement or anticipation rather than anxiety and they aren’t accompanied by feelings of fear and dread.
Hypnotherapy and the techniques used within it can help people suffering from anxiety to perceive the physical response in such a way that the anxious feelings and thoughts are lessened or removed altogether. It can do so by accessing a different state (for many this is deep relaxation) during which situations can be viewed differently. Hypnotherapy can locate inner resources and bring them into consciousness for use at appropriate times, and it can identify and remove triggers which may be operating at a subconscious level and are based on old distorted or negative thoughts. It may also be appropriate to make positive suggestions to support ongoing behavioural change.
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*Required disclaimer: Results, symptoms and treatment may vary from person to person, all individual cases are taken on merit.