By Elaine Ryan
Understand what causes anxiety.
If your mind is racing and you are unsure whether or not the symptoms you experience in your body are as a result of anxiety, then this page is for you. It will help you understand not only, what is anxiety, but also what causes anxiety.
Cause of anxiety
Let me explain, if while you were going about your day normally, feeling relaxed and calm and suddenly a bull appeared in front of you (or anything that could threaten your life) you will want your body to adapt to this new situation quickly and help you do the best thing possible to help you to survive the encounter. You need to switch quickly from relaxed and calm, to alert and ready to take action. This switch from relaxed and calm, to ready for action is in fact, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) taking over from your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS.)
The autonomic nervous system
Let me explain in more detail. When we are relaxed and ready to kick back and unwind from our day, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) enables us to do this, by relaxing our body, slowing down the heart rate and blood pressure. When this happens we can easily relax into our favorite armchair and feel content. This is why some people refer to the PNS as the rest and digest system. Our body slows down and is able to concentrate on digesting our dinner and the removal of waste from the body. This is not how we want to feel when meeting a bull, as we are not in a state to deal with it.
This is the beauty of the the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) (also know as fight or flight), it takes control of everything you need in the blink of an eye. One second you are relaxed and content, and the next your heart is pounding out of your chest and you are no longer in that sleepy relaxed state. You are wide awake. Does this sound familiar? Exactly like panic attack symptoms? Often you can feel ok, and then, out of the blue, your chest hurts, your heart is pounding. With anxiety, you may have chest pain, difficulty relaxing or sleeping, your mind is racing and you have tummy troubles. With panic attacks, you may struggle to breathe, be sweating, shaking, and think you might die. (read more on symptoms of anxiety)
Although distressing, it is just your autonomic nervous system thinking that it has detected a threat and activates your SNS to help you out. Later in I shall explain how the sympathetic nervous system gets activated when not necessary.
Your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are part of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS responds automatically when needed. Think of your brain as constantly scanning wherever you are for possible danger. Once it detects something, anything, that might cause your harm, it protects you by activating the SNS when you need to be alert and ready to take action.
- Once this happens, your mind is sharper, you become more focused.
- Your bowels and bladder can empty making you lighter and able to run or fight.
- Your senses and vision are no longer sleepy, but sharp and taking in more information.
- Blood gets diverted to your heart to help it pump faster
It then activates the PNS (the rest and digest) when the danger has passed to allow you to relax.
This necessary and adaptive system is responsible for the anxiety symptoms that you experience. If you experience them in front of a bull, you would expect that to happen.
If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned, when it is not necessary, think of your brain as being set to a higher alert to danger than you actually need. There are two things that are important here.
- We need to turn the dial down, and
- We need to know what turned the dial up in the first place.
The answer lies in how your brain is perceiving what is dangerous and what is not.
Anxiety symptoms that we create ourselves
Although we do not mean to, the way we think and the things we do, may have turned the dial up too high.
We might misinterpret sensations in our body (feel pain and worry that it is something serious). Put ourselves under too much pressure. Worry too much.
You might be placing too much pressure on yourself in your daily life. When I see people in my private practice they often say, “I’m not stressed.” Ask yourself these questions. Do you often find yourself saying “I’m too busy to …..” ” I can’t switch off.” Ask yourself how many hours do you work per day. How much of your headspace is taking up with worrying? Over working and busyness are commonplace in our hectic lifestyles, but common or not, they can lead to anxiety.
What goes on in your brain when this happens? You brain is being taught to be anxious! It already knows to be fearful of bulls, speeding cars. Now it is doing it’s best to learn new things that should create anxiety, so that it can help you out in the future, just the way it did with the bull!
We can teach our brain to match (things that are not dangerous in reality) with a fight or flight response. For example, if you are repeatedly stressed and anxious when traveling to work, your brain might eventually try to help you out by matching the traveling to work with an anxious response (since you seem to be anxious each time you travel.) Your brain will then be able to give you this response each time your travel, or think about traveling, or undertake something relating to travel! This is how we teach ourselves to activate the sympathetic nervous system in situations where it is not necessary.
There is good news! Neuroplasticity. We now know that we can rewire our brain, so to speak. Which simply means we can be taught how to “unmatch” these events with the stress response and match them with a relaxation response, you can read more about this here.
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