Your comprehensive guide to anxiety and stress reduction and a more relaxed life.
Volume one: Deconstructing anxiety [ Physiological and psychological changes during anxiety || Sympathetic vs parasympathetic nervous system || The brain during anxiety || Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and anxiety || Anxiety is a predictable pattern || Are you anxious about being anxious || Anxiety is NOT dangerous ]
This series is broken into three volumes. Not every idea will resonate with you. That is why there are many. Choose what you are attracted to and know that you have many options if the one you choose isn’t as successful as you would like. Each volume overlaps but is separated into approximate categories as follows:
Volume one: Deconstructing anxiety. This volume shows you how anxiety works so that you can reverse engineer it and therefore know how to change it effectively.
Volume two: Mental strategies to reduce anxiety. This volume gives you methods and strategies to change your response to situations using proven mental based techniques.
Volume three: Physical strategies to reduce anxiety. This volume gives you methods and strategies to change your response to situations using proven physical based techniques.
“Time, oh generous time;
lest I waste thee;
consumed by worry and fear;
till thy services be withdrawn.”
I woke up in the middle of the night 25 years ago with those exact words in my mind.
I have no idea where they came from. Maybe I was channelling Shakespeare, haha.
But they were and are still powerful words to me.
It is my sincere hope and intention that what follows will give you some idea’s on how to live a more relaxed calm life, free from long lasting anxiety and fear.
Short term these emotions have useful messages for us and should be welcome as a gift of safety and preparation.
It is the ‘habit’ of long term suffering that I aim to address and share idea’s for. From situation specific anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to general anxiety that filters into all area’s of a persons life.., getting a handle on this emotion can and will, radically change your life.
May the journey to balanced emotion begin…
Volume one – Deconstructing anxiety
As tempting as it might be to skip this volume.., don’t!
When you know the recipe for a cake.., changing even one ingredient will change the cake. Emotions are the same.
Understanding anxiety from the perspective of it’s physiological and psychological parts will help you understand how to deal with it effectively. Change one part and you change the feeling. Change more than one part and do it consistently, and you change your habit of even going back to the old feeling/behaviour again.
This is the goal of any change work in my opinion. It’s not about removing choice but rather adding variety to choice so that you can choose the ones that feel good and/or give you the result you prefer.
Physiological and psychological changes during anxiety
Anxiety can very convergent and restrictive in it’s effect both mentally and physically. This is despite the intention of the anxiety response being quite primal and safety focused in it’s origins. Over-arousal to real or imagined danger aims to prepare us to act. And this is of course evolutionary and appropriate to survival.
When we respond with appropriate action in this way, any anxiety or fear is short term. There are hormonal changes like the release of cortisol that take place with anxiety and then there are the observable changes.
Heart rate increases, breathing rate increases, blood flow increases to muscles ready for action, digestion and immune functions are halted, sweating increases, vision becomes more foveal and narrowly focused.., and thoughts focus on the subject of the danger.
How do these body and mind changes manifest
It’s useful to be more specific than that though. Breathing doesn’t just increase, but it usually ends up shallow and high in the chest. The increased blood flow builds up blood pressure that along with constant worry and stress hormone release, can lead to headaches and other physical manifestations. Digestion slowing down or stopping can make your appetite almost disappear and contributes along with tension to feeling nausea. Increased sweating leads to you getting cold due to evaporation. Narrowing vision is a predatory effect that reduces awareness of other potential dangers or solutions. And thoughts become repetitive, problem focused and very detail specific to the exclusion of seeing the overall picture.
And there already are some clues as to what to do to reverse the effect and come out of anxiety. Most of which will be covered in the idea’s that follow.
Sympathetic vs parasympathetic nervous system
Fear and anxiety have active and passive coping strategies. In the animal world for example, if a fearful situation is not escapable or is far away.., then the result is most likely to be a passive freeze (hypotension) response. The animals will often choose the freeze response if the danger is far away as this is appropriate to not be seen. Once the danger is closer, the more active flight or fight (hypertension) response is triggered to escape.
As humans, many have learnt this same style by freezing on issues that are in the future and only doing something about them once that future gets closer. This is the very nature of anxiety in most people. Have you ever left studying for an exam to the last week or day instead of getting prepared much earlier?
Fight, flight and freeze
The problem with fight, flight or freeze is that they are functions of our nervous system that are stress inducing.., the sympathetic nervous system. By contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system is the ‘rest and digest’ state where relaxation and recovery take place. We need access to both states of mind and body. It is assumed if you are reading this with intent to relax more, that you have an imbalance in the ability to access the parasympathetic rest and recovery state. Thus the strategies contained here will all lead to improvement with that balance.
The brain during anxiety
Aside from the changes that occur with the release of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones during anxiety.., what are the patterns of activity in the brain?
Anxiety tends to be a left brain analytical detail and inner dialogue oriented pattern. It is possible, but less common that a more global right brain state would dominate during anxiety.
Brain activity is talked about in terms of brainwaves that are measured in hertz (Hz) or cycles per second. So for example.., a typical resting but alert state might be around 10-12 Hz which is part of the Alpha band of frequencies. This means that there are 10-12 pulses of electrical activity across the brain per second.
During the course of a day when we are alert and active we spend most of our time in Alpha (8-12Hz) and Beta (12-32Hz approx). The higher end of this Beta range of brain frequencies is where most anxiety happens. It’s also, along with even higher Gamma (>32Hz), where most high level thinking and action occurs. So there is nothing inherently wrong with Beta. Too much though, without the balance of lower brain activity and you will tend to lead a rather stressful life.
Electroencephalogram EEG and anxiety
EEG tests, which are electrical measures of brain activity using external sensors.., also show a lack of coherence in the Theta and Alpha brainwaves. IE: In much the same way as heart coherence is a measure of a healthy heart (to be discussed later), Alpha and Theta coherence could be said to be a measure of healthy brain activity. When we relax and/or meditate we start by entering the Alpha state before then going even lower into a Theta (4-8Hz) brainwave state. Lower still and we get into the Delta (0.5-4Hz) state most commonly associated with sleep.
This is why meditation can have a balancing positive effect on anxiety and stress. If the only time you can get into these lower brainwave states is when you sleep.., then again your life may be quite a stressful one.
We will be covering a number of ways to get into these beneficial brainwave states in these volumes including the use of audio visual brainwave entrainment in volume three.
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and anxiety
There are three common factors often looked at by scientists when they study anxiety and how prone someone is to suffering from it. The resilience of the persons nervous system (resistance to outside influence in exciting or inhibiting the nervous system).., the equilibrium of the excitation or inhibition.., and the ability to switch from excitation to inhibition easily.
Improving heart rate variability (HRV) is one way to address these.
HRV is a measure of the hearts ability to respond to a changing environment. Sometimes it needs to slow down so you can relax, and sometimes it needs to speed up to take immediate action. A healthy heart contrary to what you might think is actually irregular from beat to beat for this reason. Improving HRV therefore is a way to reduce anxiety by way of being more capable of moving from arousal to relaxation or from relaxation to arousal.
For a comprehensive guide to ways to improve HRV read the article on this website called…
QUICK TIP: From ‘Health in a heartbeat’ article.
Some of the methods described in this series will improve your HRV as a side effect. One of the easiest and most useful ways to improve HRV at the same time as calming down your body and mind is with breathing which will be covered in volume two of this series. Try this: Breath in for a count of 4 seconds.., and out for a count of 6-8 seconds. IE: extend the length of your exhale. Do this 5 time now and notice how you feel.
Anxiety is a predictable pattern
Anxiety is a pattern of behaviour, thought and electro-chemical reactions.
For most people who consider anxiety a challenge.., once started, anxiety gains momentum and takes on a life of it’s own. Typically, with any emotion that lasts longer than a minute or two like anxiety or depression.., there is a feedback loop of internal dialogue and physical sensation.
So for example:
“What if I screw up this interview” (you check your internal feelings and there is a tightness in your chest). “I should have prepared more” (Feelings again, and your breathing is getting faster). “What do I say.., I’m not ready” (breathing even faster now and that feeling in your stomach is familiar). “Oh no, I’m starting to panic” (feelings get stronger). “See, I knew it.., this happens every time.., I can’t do this”.
You get the idea.
In essence this is a practised pattern and done correctly this pattern can be interrupted. This we will cover in volume two of this series.
Are you anxious about being anxious
Maybe this seems a strange question, but the distinction is a powerful one. What I am talking about are feelings about feelings or meta states or meta cognition as referred to in classic psychology and NLP. Meta-cognitive theory and therapy has it’s own branch in psychology. In essence normal anxiety becomes general anxiety disorder (GAD) when a person starts to worry about getting anxious. So it becomes a loop of worrying about the future of worrying.
You CAN actually have a positive relationship with fear and anxiety.
Think of how these extended states might feel to you:
Even just putting different descriptive words in front of a feeling word changes how it feels doesn’t it.
Worried about anxiety
Fearful of anxiety
Depressed about anxiety
Hopeful about anxiety
Comfortable with anxiety
Appreciative of anxiety
Again.., the extension of the label makes a big difference to how it feels even just reading it.
Can you be appreciative of anxiety? Yes you can if you learn to get the message and use that message to change your actions and thoughts to make your future more to your liking. Maybe if you are putting off taking action you SHOULD feel anxious. Take the message to get off your a*** and do something!
In volume two we will start with this idea of how anxiety can have different feelings to it and introduce you to ways to use this and other mentally focused ways to become anxiety free.
Anxiety is NOT dangerous
Very much related to the above section on feelings about feelings, this might be the biggest thing you can realise to let go of anxiety.
Short term anxiety is appropriate and serves to protect us from danger but the feeling itself is not dangerous. It may seem like that when you are in the middle of it though.
Start to adopt a new belief around being anxious.
Anxiety very rarely has any danger attached to it.
I watched an interview with a Dr Harry Barry a few months ago who specialises in anxiety and panic attacks where he said something that I really like. He said “Anxiety is uncomfortable but it’s not dangerous”. He also said that anxiety is totally treatable without drugs.
I’m going to change the statement in two ways and then repeat it throughout this series. Why change it? The above statement is absolute in it’s connection of anxiety with discomfort. IE: It’s more accurate to say anxiety CAN be uncomfortable. And secondly the brain cannot process negatives. IE: If I say don’t think of a red car, what’s the first thing you think about in order to make sense of the statement..? A red car.
So the statement I’m going to use is this:
“Anxiety can be uncomfortable, but you are safe.”
This can even be a type of mantra or affirmation to yourself. If you want to learn about making affirmations more powerful then read the article on this website called…
QUICK TIP: From ‘in search of the perfect affirmation’ article.
State your affirmations to yourself as if they were being spoken to you by another person. Instead of saying “Anxiety can be uncomfortable, but I’m safe”.., say “Anxiety can be uncomfortable, but you are safe —– (insert your name at the end)”. For why this works see the article.
Now read volume two of this anxiety relief series we take these understandings and look at the mental based strategies for reducing and eliminating anxiety in your life.
See you there…