1. Anxiety and stress are a biological response to threat in our environment
A threat in the environment can be real or perceived, and it can come from our internal environment (such as our thoughts, beliefs, internal dialog, etc.) or our external (physical) environment. Our threat response network doesn’t know the difference between a stressful thought (eg. “OMG this is a disaster”) and a physical danger. In both cases adrenaline and cortisol are released in the body to give us the energy, strength, speed, etc. to escape / survive. It is meant to be short bursts of maybe 30 seconds. When the ‘danger’ has passed, the body needs to discharge the residual survival energy and return to ‘rest and digest.’
2. Residual survival energy created by this biological response must be discharged
When the survival energy is not discharged, it accumulates, and we become more unsettled and reactive. Even when our external environment seems non-threatening, we may still feel jumpy. Often the intensity of our responses don’t match the level of perceived threat – i.e. we ‘over-react.’ We feel the discomfort of anxiety, so we think anxious thoughts, and this perpetuates a ‘vicious cycle.’
We try mindfulness practices, meditation, and sometime go to therapy. This often yields very little benefit despite our herculean efforts, as long as the residual survival energy continues to cycle in our bodies, unabated.
In his groundbreaking book, Waking the Tiger, Peter Levine explains that the lower brain has not received the ‘all clear’ signal from the body, and continues to release adrenalin and cortisol.
3. Masking the discomfort of anxiety and stress does not make it go away
In another groundbreaking book, The Body Keeps the Score, author Bessel van der Kolk explains that the communication between body and brain is 80% afferent – meaning ‘from the bottom up’ – from the body to the brain. Think super highway from body to brain. And when we are trying to calm the anxious feelings in the body via dialog, we are working with a measly 20% of the communication pathway. Think deer track from brain to body.
Medication can give us relief and can help stabilize us. It stops the feelings of anxiety, stress and discomfort, but also stops the feelings of joy and aliveness. They are all still there, and more are being created moment-to-moment, but we just can’t feel them. They keep accumulating. As they build and get more intense, often more medication is required. If the medication is suddenly stopped, all the sensations rush forward to be felt. Without the necessary skills and support, it can be overwhelming. (If you are on this type of medication, always consult your doctor if you wish to reduce the dose).
4. Prolonged anxiety and stress cause illness and disease
Imagine driving your car with the accelerator pedal to the floor over a bumpy dirt road, non-stop – eventually something breaks down. This is what happens to our bodies. Since prolonged anxiety and stress continue to signal danger, the body is constantly prepared for survival – usually fight or flight, and sometimes freeze. It reasons that there is no need to digest food, or fight infections, so the threat response network shuts these systems down. It also knows that the higher, thinking brain is too slow to respond to danger, so it gets flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. The result is a foggy brain. Over time, we can develop digestive or immune problems. Our brains have also changed with chronic anxiety and stress and their functioning has been compromised also.
5. The good news – our bodies know how to discharge residual survival energy if we let them
Did you ever feel shaky after a scary event? That is your body doing its job – discharging the residual survival energy to restore equilibrium. We can learn how to support our bodies to release this energy (also caused by anxiety and stress) and prevent the accumulation of it in the future.
It is best to do this initially with a person trained to keep the process of release contained and slow enough so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. Imagine you are a soft drink bottle that has been shaken up. Opening the lid completely will cause an eruption, but unscrewing the lid slightly to let the hiss out, and then closing it again gradually releases the energy or pressure in a slow and controlled way. The fizzy drink inside settles a little, and after a few releases, the pressure has dissipated. Cathartic release may feel good in the moment, but it traumatises and overwhelms an already over-loaded nervous system.
We are blessed with bodies that are amazingly adaptive and forgiving, and have an innate capacity to move towards well-being. Our brains continue to grow and adapt, and when we stop the constant release of adrenaline and cortisol, and allow the survival energies to discharge naturally, our brains start to grow new dendrites and synapses. New pathways are formed, and our brains can be the extraordinary organism that they are!