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Putting the Brakes on Anxiety

I have hesitated to write about anxiety for a while because it is a complex issue with many layers. I don’t want to minimize or trivialize the topic by writing a short post. So what I’m going to do in the next few paragraphs is discuss the stress response in hopes of explaining why anxiety occurs while providing you with two ways to reduce it. Keep in mind this is simplified for the sake of brevity and I am available to talk about this in more detail upon request.

Anxiety can be thought of as an overactive stress response which most people know as Fight, Flight or Freeze. It is a vital response to our health and safety and is an intricate system, that I won’t delve into here, but, in short, is the body’s way of dealing with perceived danger.

The stress response has it’s roots in a form of survival response that protected our ancestors from saber toothed tigers and other predators. It was the same response that kept, and keeps, warriors and soldiers out of harm's way when in battle. It prepares us to fight an enemy or flee a situation. You may better relate to it as the heroic stories of firefighters running into burning buildings to save the lives of trapped victims and, also, of mothers lifting a car off a pinned child.

I know what you’re thinking, “I’m not trying to flee from a saber toothed tiger or fend off an enemy in war, I’m trying to go about my day. I’m not in danger. This isn’t life or death.” You are correct BUT the stress response can be triggered for a number of reasons which are our modern day sabre toothed tigers. Traffic, long lines, a fight with a parent/spouse/friend, or even a big test, game or interview. When the response is activated, no matter the reason, it has the same result as if our physical survival is threatened.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s imagine the nervous system is broken into two parts: A gas pedal and a braking system. The autonomic nervous system (the gas pedal) is responsible for the stress response. It floods our bodies with adrenaline and cortisol, our respiration rate increases and so does our heart rate, among many other physical changes. This is what is responsible for the feeling of panic or anxiety. Conversely, the parasympathetic nervous system (the brakes), switches this response off. It helps us to feel calm.

There are a number of things you can do to either reduce the impact of the gas pedal or activate the brakes. I will gloss over one of each.

To reduce the effects of the stress response, you can burn off the adrenaline, cortisol and glucose levels within your body. To do this, one can give the body what it wants, to fight or to flee, by engaging in cardiovascular types of activity. Including a brisk walk, jog, bike ride, swim, dance or whatever cardio exercise you prefer or have available to you. Studies show five minutes of cardio is all that is needed following the activation of the stress response.

To activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the braking system) one can engage in a calming activity. For some this might be mindfulness, deep breathing, coloring, or knitting/crocheting. When you engage in these activities, the brakes to the stress response will be triggered and you should find relief from the stress, panic or anxiety. However, this does take some practice as it can be difficult for people to engage in such activities during a heightened state of stress or anxiety.

For those of you who feel panic or nervousness prior to test taking, athletic endeavors or other specific situations, going for a run or knitting may not be an option. I have resources in PDF, audiofile and webinar formats to address a number of different types of stress/anxiety. If you are interested in a more in-depth description or explanation of the stress response or if you want access to helpful resources and techniques, make an appointment with me. I would love to help you put the brakes on your anxiety.

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