The Anxiety Module – For Reducing Anxiety
If our efforts to lessen our anxiety don’t work then perhaps we could use a different approach. We might be going in the wrong approach because we have the wrong model for understanding the issue of anxiety and anxiety attacks. One common approach is to tell yourself to stay calm. Nothing is more frustrating than telling yourself to stay calm and not have any control over your body to make it happen. This generally just adds a layer of frustration and a feeling of failure. This sense of powerlessness usually adds anxiety as well. There is something else making our glands sweat, heart beat, gut tighten, and you have that feeling to run.
There must be another way to overcome anxiety. Let’s start with a different model of what is happening. The body is in a fight or flight mode. Its survival instinct has been activated and it is in a full blown effort with every nerve to survive. In some situations this is actually a very healthy response. In a sense, your body is doing just what it is supposed to do if it were actually under threat. The only issue is that it is not under any real threat. Your logical and reasoning mind knows you are fine. It knows that your public speaking appearance, driving a car, or attendance to a meeting is not life threatening. However, something in your unconscious nervous system isn’t operating with the same information your intellect has. Your unconscious nervous system has its own information and associations. These may come from memory, past experience, imagined scenarios, or even something that first started with a dream you had. Where it started isn’t the critical issue to overcoming anxiety. The immediate need is to calm down.
The first thing to recognize is that your unconscious nervous system and physical body are not betraying you. They are trying to keep you alive. The problem is that a false alarm got triggered and the unconscious nervous system and body don’t know the trigger was false. You know at the level of your intellect that your anxiety is an overreaction, but the messages from your intellect to your body and to your nervous system aren’t getting through.
One of the mis-understandings about anxiety is that it can be redirected by our intellect. It can’t, at least not directly. When our body and nervous system are in survival mode they can override our thinking intellect. This is not something that we are familiar with particularly if we have grown up and gone to school in the suburbs or go to work in an air-conditioned office. We live with the appearance that our life goes according to the narrative of our intellect and so we don’t notice that there is another system operating.
Even in calm states our thinking doesn’t control survival functions of our body. Thinking about making our heart beating faster or slower doesn’t change the rhythm. Thinking about breathing slower doesn’t change the tempo of our breathing. Why should we believe or even think that we can change it when it is in an anxiety situation. That wouldn’t be sensible. However, we can use not just our thinking, but our attention to focus on our breathing and affect the rhythm. There is a kind of back feed mechanism to affect our breathing, heart rate, and even our anxiety response. When we apply our attention and focus we can influence and relax our nervous system. This is different than intellectual thinking.
It is a well know fact that there are different regions of our brain and they take care of different functions. Sometimes they work together and sometimes they work separately and even in conflict. They didn’t all develop at the same time in our evolution. The Neo-Cortex is a relatively new region and it handles things like abstract thinking, language, and cognitive reasoning. We consider these executive functions and therefore might assume that it is in charge. The rest of the body and brain seem to go along with the executive as long as none of our survival or danger alarms get triggered. In actuality the survival functions, breathing, digestion, adrenaline response, pituitary gland excretions etc. are being taken care of by a separate system on their own and just don’t need any attention. When anxiety happens the animal side of our brain, more closely wired to our nervous system kicks in and we finally notice that it operates separately.
One of the aspects of anxiety is that we feel a sense of loss of control or powerlessness. This can be understood particularly if our identity is aligned with our intellect and thinking mind. When the fight/flight response of anxiety activates something seems to have taken control from “us”. It is like being the rider of the horse and thinking everything is going along just fine and we have total control over the horse. Then, that horse sees something move in the grass or senses a smell, and it is “spooked”. It takes off out of our control. We didn’t see what was in the grass and we didn’t pick up on the smell so we don’t know why it is running. It makes no sense to our intellect but that is because our intellect doesn’t have animal instincts. Animal instincts are reserved for other parts of our brain and nervous system that we usually ignore and so aren’t familiar with.
We are now riding on that wild animal. Our intellect is the rider on the spooked horse of our body. Our intellect is confused by what is happening because it doesn’t have the information from the animal instinct about why. In the same way the rider doesn’t have the information that the horse has. Because of this we might have feelings of confusion because the body and nervous system is not behaving according to the intellectual model.
At this point one of the worst things you can do as the rider is get upset with the horse for running. The horse is scared and in its state of survival most things look like a threat, even an open area of grass looks like it could be trouble. If the rider starts getting mad at the horse, then the horse senses a hostile creature on its back. This is not comforting. It can incorrectly confirm that its instinct about getting spooked was correct. It also can add a second layer of anxiety and push up its adrenaline to another level as now the rider seems like a threat also.
With our human animal one of the worst things we can do is berate our selves, or our body for it not conforming to the wishes of our intellect. Comments like, “I am over reacting, I’m so stupid for doing this, Everyone is going to notice and think I am crazy,” are just the kind of things that add a layers of anxiety at the very moment we want to reduce it. Our human animal brain and body can have a fear response to the mental dialog of chatter if it is harsh, judgmental, and negative. At this point we need to train our intellectual brain to better manage and communicate to the animal instinct and nervous system brain.
Fundamentally the rider wants to calm the horse. To do this the rider will need to be calm to start with. The body may be going into anxiety and even a panic attack, but if you can keep hold of your attention and remain calm, even when your body and nervous system are not, then you will be on your way to taming your anxiety.
For a better understanding listen to this free audio on Anxiety.
To help calm your self and reduce anxiety do the two exercises in the Anxiety Module found in the Membership area of the Self Mastery Program.
When there is an anxiety response in the nervous system it pushes our thinking mind to look for ways out of where we are. In our anxious state our thinking mind is being directed by our animal instinct to go to work on getting to safety. It might also push us to perceive other people around us as threatening. The flight attendant who won’t serve us a drink before take off now appears confrontational. Depending on the associations you have accumulated in your life this might manifest itself as trying to control or direct other people, change a schedule so you feel you have some power, exit the room or building, run, or even arrange items on your desk in a neat and orderly way. The animal brain wants to get to safety, but the intellectual brain doesn’t have a solid way to do this so it runs in odd circles of control and organization instead.
This type of mind chatter and behavior are typical responses of an intellectual mind when it doesn’t have a better model for understanding what is happening. When you learn more about what is happening with your anxiety, and effective techniques and exercises for reducing anxiety you won’t be as compelled to these types of thoughts and behaviors.
This mindfulness approach to anxiety is the personal approach of Gary van Warmerdam and should not necessarily be a substitute for professional treatment.