How an Anxious mind works – The Short Version
All living creatures have an inbuilt survival system. This system is activated by threats coming from our environment – emotional and physical. This system activates our autonomic nervous system, harnessing all available energy and dispersing it to areas of the body where it can be galvanised into action. At this point we are normally to be found either running away, fighting back or playing dead. This clever system we call the Fight, Flight, Freeze response. It’s awesome, but it can also be a bit tricksterish.
Once it has switched on, the idea is that it helps to get you out of trouble before switching back off again so that you can get on with your life. The problem is that once we’ve had an experience that we’ve had to ‘survive’, our brain knows that such danger exists, and because it is a system that learns and builds upon experience, it tends to remain on the lookout for future danger to avoid.
While looking for danger seems quite sensible, it is also disruptive to the opposing state of equilibrium, balance, and calm. So here we have a conundrum. We don’t feel calm when in this state, but we desire to feel calm because it is the natural state to be in when we are ‘safe’. The fact that we don’t feel calm causes us to look for the danger that is making us feel unsafe. We trust that our bodily state is telling us we are not safe for a reason, so we remain on the lookout for danger. When we don’t find danger in our environments, we look within, to our discomfort and our threat seeking thoughts. We find these intrusive and therefore they are unwelcomed by us. This signals further to our ‘threat detecting’ system that something is wrong. Hence, we find ourselves stuck in a loop.
The fact that this is a loop is no accident. Many human biological systems are circuits of this kind. They are however not closed systems and we have opportunities across their functionality to influence and re-direct them. We do this in many ways. With the anxiety loop, we may disrupt the circuit chemically with a sedative or a glass of wine. We may take part in behaviours that activate the inhibition of the survival response by inducing relaxation, through massage, encountering nature, meditation, humour etc. We also often take part in dissipatory activities such as excessive exercise in order to use up the adrenaline that we feel present in our systems. Distraction is another measure we use to try to displace the feeling that we really wish would clear off. These approaches are entirely instinctive and there’s nothing at all wrong with counteracting an active autonomic survival response this way, but for many of us, the effects are temporary.
My research which began 22 years ago set out for find a way to reset my own anxiety response back to default factory settings. I wanted to feel the way I felt before ‘trauma’ left me looking for danger left right and centre. The ‘disorder’ theory didn’t make any sense to me at the time and still doesn’t. My current research is in the field of Global Mental Health, where behind the scenes the Psychiatric and Bio-Medical approaches are beginning to come undone. Even the World Health Organisation is admitting that the Pharmaceutically motivated hoodwinking of human beings into believing that their brains have suddenly malfunctioned in the last century is just not viable or valid.
For me, and the many people I’ve worked with over the years, knowledge is power. Knowing how your system works, knowing how to work with it, and why this makes a difference is essential and empowering. When I work with people I share everything I know about anxiety with them, and we work together to teach the ‘survival’ brain that the emergency is over. This is a systematic approach leading to permanent change. As mentioned earlier, there are many ways to counterbalance the anxious state, but once switched on, in its valiant endeavour to keep you alive, it will try to remain ‘on’.
Nobody I have met who’s anxious has a ‘broken’ brain. Not me, not you, not anyone. If you’d like to know more you can find me here – firstname.lastname@example.org where I’m always happy to answer questions and talk to you about anxiety, panic, brains and life. Gill Batty ©Outoftheloop2021 😊