Braced shoulders, worried thoughts, shallow breathing. Leila notices her signs of anxiety and pauses to acknowledge them. Her quiet attention interrupts the rising anxiety and allows her body to relax instead.
Chronic anxiety can arise from a variety of causes:
- Physical sensitivities
- Neurochemical imbalances
- Current stressors or danger
- Picking up other people’s unacknowledged anxiety
- An over-active Inner Critic
- Physical pain
- Flashbacks to long-past anxiety
- The ups and downs of healing from recent trauma.
Anxiety from trauma
This article addresses anxiety as a natural response to traumatic events and a primary symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Physically and psychologically, we worry that a threatening event will happen again, and no longer feel as safe.
Understanding the nervous system
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for fight, flight, and freeze reactions. It increases stress hormone production, increases sweating, accelerates the heart rate, dilates the bronchi in the lungs, and inhibits salivation and digestion. When the sympathetic nervous system is dominant, we experience activation: tension and increased stress.
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for rest and digestion. It does the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system: increases salivation and digestion, decreases stress hormone production, decreases sweating, slows the heart rate, and narrows the bronchi in the lungs. When the parasympathetic nervous system is dominant, we experience settling: relaxation and decreased stress.
We all experience alternating activation and settling as we go about our days. For example, Leila’s heart rate increases before an important meeting, keeping her alert and focused. Afterward, she relaxes as she eats lunch. Later, she experiences the activation of exercise as she rides her bike home.
A threatening event triggers immediate activation into a full fight or flight response. If the nervous system perceives an overwhelming threat and no possibility of overcoming it, even more activation results in a freeze response.
When a car pulls out in front of Leila as she rides, she swerves and brakes thanks to her sympathetic nervous system. After successfully avoiding a crash, she’ll need time to tremble and discharge the stress to settle again. If she doesn’t have a chance to settle completely, or if she has had past close calls or crashes, she may experience a spike of anxiety the next time she plans to ride her bike.
Over time, accumulated responses to past trauma can result in chronic anxiety. Physical signs include shallow breathing, braced muscles, being easily startled, stomach in knots, chronic pain, and insomnia. Psychological signs include spiraling worry and negative thoughts, sometimes culminating in panic attacks which can feel like heart attacks.
Unless interrupted, anxiety reinforces itself. Physically, the sympathetic nervous system stays more active and suppresses the parasympathetic system. Psychologically, we become anxious about the physical signs and about the anxiety itself.
Interrupt anxiety with acceptance
When you notice signs of anxiety, pause to acknowledge them. Name them in a neutral way. “Braced shoulders. Worried thoughts. Shallow breathing.” Remember that anxiety is simply activation, your body’s way of preparing for a possible threat. Thank your body for protecting you.
Meet physical tension with acceptance. You don’t have to like it or enjoy it, but in this moment, these particular muscles are tense. You may find that they relax when you acknowledge them, or they may stay tense. Either way, at least you don’t have the additional discomfort of fighting your own body.
Change your story
Leila is meeting friends for dinner, and they haven’t shown up. Anxiety says, “They forgot! Or I’m in the wrong place!” She notices her worried thoughts, and creates a more peaceful story. “They’re running late. They’ll be here soon. If not, I’ll call in a few minutes and enjoy dinner on my own.” Whether they arrive or not, she experiences a more pleasant wait.
If you notice thoughts focused on what you’re doing wrong, try a new question: “What am I doing right?” You’re probably doing several things right, and suddenly the world will seem less threatening.
Signs of settling include a spontaneous deep breath, stomach gurgling, muscles relaxing, shifting to a more open posture, and feelings of ease and well-being. Notice how settling feels in your body, and enjoy it when it happens.
Remember your exits
Take note of activities and thoughts which help you exit from an anxious state. Do more of what you find calming. You may also want to investigate some of the other causes of anxiety listed above and reduce the ones which affect you.
Each bout of anxiety gives your nervous system another opportunity to practice settling and relaxing. Over time, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes more active and you’ll return to a smooth rhythm of activation and settling.
Katie Boyts presents details about the Psychophysiology of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in a series of clear slides. (large PDF)