By Brian Robinson.
Anxiety happens when a system in our body becomes energised inappropriately. This system is commonly referred to as fight or flight and can only be aroused in two ways. Firstly, our brain can bring this system into play if it believes we are in danger. For example, if we walk out of a shop and bump into a large male gorilla we will immediately become anxious. We go into freeze mode first, and then, once we have assessed the situation we go into escape mode. The vital thing to note here, is that both these modes are underpinned by tension. Without these high tension levels we would not be able to freeze; and we would not have the necessary means of escape. Then, once we realise the gorilla is just a cardboard cut-out, the brain reduces tension levels fairly quickly and our anxiety fades away. For want of a better description, let’s call this type 1 tension, and we should perhaps note that this tension is perfectly normal along with the anxiety that accompanies it.
The only other way fight or flight can be initiated, is when physical tension levels in the body reach a certain critical level. And where the source of this tension does not come from an anxious brain. When that happens, the fight of flight system simply responds to the high tension levels and we go into anxiety mode. Usually, this type of physical tension has built up gradually in the body, and unlike the brain initiated tension, it tends to subside gradually. It is perfectly possible for your average anxiety sufferer to experience both type 1 and type 2 tension. Because when fight or flight becomes energised inappropriately, the brain quite naturally goes on high alert and is prepared to add to tension levels if it sees a necessity. This is sometimes referred to as anticipation anxiety and can be triggered by something as simple as a single thought.
Once we understand the nature of General Anxiety Disorder the pathways to recovery become obvious. Firstly, we need to bring down physical tension well below the critical level. This can be achieved via relaxation. And secondly, we need to deal with the causes of tension. It is possible to point to many causes of tension. However, if we have healthy and positive thought patterns, it is unlikely that tension levels will get too high.
What this means in practice, is we change the things we can: and we compensate for the things we can’t. Relaxation is the natural place to start, because it will help begin to stabilise matters and help prepare the way to calm the mind and emotions.
Many therapists describe anxiety as a cycle of worry, stress and fear. It is a vortex we get sucked into. The question is: how do we break free from that cycle; how do we pull ourselves from the vortex? A better way to see things is to view our body as one single system, a system that has become far too tense. The science of physics tells us that if we put a relaxant into a stressed system it is bound to become a bit less stressed. That’s physics! And if we put in a lot of relaxants, then we must relax a lot. That’s maths. This is a far better way to view things and with this perception everything hinges only on our work ethic and our input to the system.
So, what can be described as a relaxant? Well, pretty much everything we do in the course of a day can be geared towards relaxation. Begin by setting the right tone for the day. Start with a breathing exercise; keep an open mind about what the forthcoming day might hold; accept the current state of affairs; and trust in yourself and your ability to relax. Begin the daily routine with a relaxing bath or shower. Heat and movement are the enemies of tension. Make sure you have a good breakfast involving foods that release their sugar slowly. Over chew and savour your food. Only people in danger eat hurriedly. Try and get out into the fresh air at least once a day. Walk to work if you can or somehow get some exercise into your daily routine. Exercise is a proven stress buster especially aerobic exercise where you get slightly warm. Make sure your day is well structured and if possible get into a routine. Routines can be very comforting and can make you feel safe and relaxed. Use your five senses as both filters and feeders for your system. Filter out all the bad news and negativity. Feed in all the relaxing things such as music; uplifting stories, films and videos; include some pleasant smells; have something tactile to touch like worry beads or something furry. Make sure you include proven relaxation exercises as part of your daily routine. Breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualisation exercises are proven techniques. The list is endless. Ask yourself throughout your day: is what I am doing producing tension or reducing it?
Leaving aside the complication of causes which undoubtedly can feed into anxiety, what we can say, is that if our thought patterns are healthy and we are not being dogged by persistent worry or troublesome issues, then we would not be anxious. However, it is also true that the issues of the mind are so various, and that we as individuals are so different, that it is impossible to set out a clear formula for a healthy and positive mindset. What’s good for the goose: may not always be good for the gander. However, we will have to make changes to how we think and how we manage what goes on in our head. We may have to change the way we see ourselves, the world, our past and others; we may have to reconsider our beliefs and perspectives; we may have to spend less time pondering our future and focus more on the present etc.
Here is a formula which may help. I refer to it as the four ‘A’s. The first ‘A’ is to accept. Accept the thought that enters your head and do not try and suppress it. We know that doesn’t work. Who know where or why thoughts present themselves, but they are just thoughts and not necessarily truths. And besides, acceptance is the opposite of resistance and resistance only produces more tension.
Second ‘A’ is to analyse. Analyse the thought and that always involves asking lots of questions. Is this thought true? Is it something I need to act on? Is it absurd? Is it only there because of my anxiety? Make sure the questions are relevant and the answers make sense.
Third ‘A’ is answer. Answer the thought and this always involves reaching conclusions based on the answers to your questions. Once you have drawn your conclusions, make your decisions. Drawing good conclusions and making sound decisions can be profoundly relaxing psychologically. Remember, the answer doesn’t necessarily resolve the problem: the answer involves a decision as to how you are going to handle the issue or move forward from it. Also remember, you should always try and stick by your decisions. Yes you can return to them: but not endlessly. When you return to your decisions endlessly there is a word for that: it’s called indecision.
The fourth ‘A’ is allowing. Allow the thought to remain in your mind but not necessarily at the forefront of your thinking. Now you’ve dealt with the thought, the chances are it will gradually fade away over time. Remember, the four ‘A’s is a process. It will take time. But the brain is very adept at understanding processes. It is less adept at understanding language that just goes around in a circle.
Finally, if you follow the relaxation and thought management pathways this is bound to improve matters. It will take courage, a good work ethic and a certain amount of determination, but if we make steady headway with our relaxation and take positive steps with our thinking, then it really is possible to get the anxiety genie back in the bottle.