Anxiety is something we all experience to varying degrees. It can range from a mild uneasy feeling to a full-blown panic attack. It is never pleasant and in the long term it can be harmful to your health. Anxiety is the after-effect of stress. It is the lingering feeling that something isn’t right, or is going to go wrong. On a mental level, it causes the mind to speed up and try to control the future. To understand anxiety we need to look at our evolution.
As cavemen, we lived a mostly relaxed life, with periods of intense stress and danger when threatened by a predator. When the Sabre Tooth Tiger approached our ancestors, their primitive brains sprang into action, releasing the necessary chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol (among others) to help them survive. The caveman’s heart pumped faster, their respiration increased and their muscles switched on, ready to run to safety. This is the well-known fight/flight/freeze response.
Although our modern brains are much more sophisticated, it is still the role of the autonomic nervous system to save us from danger. Unfortunately this part of our brain can’t tell the difference between a real, physical threat, and a figural or emotional threat. That’s why we feel the stress of work, for example, throughout our bodies. The other problem is that when our ancestors’ bodies were flooded with these stress chemicals, they actually used them – they ran or fought and expended the energy, thus helping their bodies to process it and return to their natural resting state (aka homeostasis). In contrast, in the modern world we rarely expend this energy (and we almost never use it in the moment), and we become stuck in a cycle of fight/flight/freeze, never really returning to homeostasis. As a result, our brains change and we get into the habit of reacting this way, causing this to become our default response. That’s why it takes you the entire two week holiday to actually relax – up until you arrive on the beach, your body is constantly being triggered into stress and then continues to struggle to process the effects for some time. We also tend to self-medicate to try to calm ourselves down and “unwind” with a few drinks, which just masks the symptoms for a few hours.
There are a few things you can do to return to homeostasis.
Mindfulness and meditation bring you into the present moment, which for anxiety, is like sunlight to a vampire. As we spend more time practicing mindfulness, our brains rewire themselves, eventually making homeostasis our default setting.
Therapy can be of benefit not only to help you return to homeostasis, but to increase your threshold for stress. This means you’ll get triggered into stress less often, and be able to deal with it when it does happen.
The third thing that can be helpful is Trauma Release Exercises (TRE). This uses our body’s natural wisdom to release stress and trauma from the physical body.
Useful links are in the comments.
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Laura is a Gestalt counsellor and psychotherapist in Melbourne's inner North.