Anxiety: Two Tensions

By Brian Robinson.

Anxiety can be a confusing experience. But the better we understand it: the less confusing it becomes. The critical thing to remember, is that the underlying cause of anxiety is stress or tension within the body. If our body, our emotions and our minds are relaxed, then we cannot possibly be anxious.

When it comes to tension in the body, two systems are involved i.e. the peripheral nervous system and the central nervous system. However, they work in very different ways.

The peripheral nervous system is responsible for initiating the fight or flight response. When tension levels in the body reach a certain critical level, fight or flight is engaged automatically. This then is a reactive system. It has no knowledge of what goes on in our minds.

What makes anxiety difficult, is that fight or flight is of itself a tension-producing response. This means in practice, that once we fall into anxiety, we have to release quite a bit of tension just to get back to the critical level.

I sometimes refer to this as type 1 or background tension. And the critical characteristic to remember, is this sort of tension doesn’t change dramatically over time. It hasn’t suddenly appeared and pushed us over the cliff. And likewise, it won’t suddenly disappear leaving us feeling well again. Tension levels build gradually and progressively over time, and these will almost certainly be increasing over several months prior to anxiety setting in. Perhaps the second thing to remember, is that even when we are feeling well again, our type 1 tension levels will still be far too high. It is easy to become complacent in recovery and believe we are out of the woods when we are not.

Out of the woods?

The other type of tension involved is initiated by the central nervous system i.e. the brain. And this type 2 tension acts quite differently. For example, if we fall into the lion’s den, the brain will immediately increase tensions levels, which will in turn cause the peripheral nervous system to trigger fight or flight. However, when we discover that there were no lions loose in the den, tension levels will soon fall back to normal and we will begin to feel well again. This is the natural way for tension to work. It can come and go with almost equal speed. It wouldn’t make sense for example, if tension levels remained high months after the incident described here. The question we need to ask now, is why does the brain get involved at all?

When people become anxious, and fight or fight is energised in the body unnaturally, the brain automatically becomes involved. Fight or flight is after all a radical system directly connected with danger so the brain quite naturally wants to help. Once on high-alert, the brain will tend to increase tension levels if and when it feels the need. Often there is no rhyme or reason to when this happens and this just adds to the confusion. Anxiety sufferers can experience this as ‘anticipation anxiety’. They may have a negative thought enter their head, after which they quickly become anxious. Rather than helping, this involvement of the brain almost always makes matters worse.

When it comes to recovery, each type of tension settles in its own way. Provided the sufferer is relaxing everything down and is applying a good work ethic, Type 1 tension will reduce gradually over time. And once well below the critical level, the sufferer should begin to feel normal.

The brain tension, however, tends to take longer to settle and can be quite unpredictable. The sufferer may have been anxiety free for a number of months, yet the brain may feel it appropriate to make them anxious again. Usually these episodes are short-lived and in no way act as indicators that recovery has faltered. It is simply, that the brain wants to take the time to be certain that danger no longer exists. And it can be a while before the brain feels things are safe again.

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