It's not primarily a psychological issue.
Posted Nov 09, 2019
Anxiety is the sensation generated by the body’s neurochemical reaction to a mental or physical threat. It is simply a danger signal, and without it, you can’t survive. It is not primarily a psychological diagnosis.
Adrenaline — increases sensitivity and alertness
Cortisol — mobilizes energy stores/inflammation
Histamines — immune system/inflammation
Endorphins — modulates the stress response
This automatic survival response is a core attribute of the unconscious brain, which is estimated to process 11 million bits of input per second. Some of the bodily responses include:
- Dilation and constriction of your pupils
- Frequently shifting your weight to protect your skin and avoid breakdown
- Avoiding extremes—too bright, loud, bitter, hot, cold, and pressure
- Coordination of muscles in order to talk, walk, chew, and swallow
In other words, your nervous system is working every millisecond to keep you alive and safe. It is a function inherent in every living creature.
Humans have a problem that I call the “Curse of Consciousness.” Neuroscience research has demonstrated that unpleasant thoughts (real or perceived mental threats) are processed in a similar region of the brain with a similar neurochemical response. (1) But the conscious brain deals with only 40 bits of information per second.
Even though consciousness sets off the survival reaction, it can’t control it, because it is such a huge mismatch. That is why it’s not subject to rational psychological interventions alone. So how can you solve anxiety?
You decrease your body’s level of stress hormones.
Anxiety represents your amoral survival response, and it is not who you are. Who you are as a human being is your conscious brain. So, the first step is to separate your identity from your stress response.
Get rid of the word, “anxiety” and use the phrase, “my stress hormones are elevated.” I have my clients visualize a large thermometer on the wall, and when they feel anxious, visualize how much by the level of the reading. There is a word progression:
There are two ways of lowering these chemicals:
Directly—Using relaxation strategies:
Neuroplasticity—Stimulating the brain, so there is less reactivity to stress:
- Learning to “be with your pain”
- Not discussing your pain with anyone—or complaining
- Expressive writing
- Moving forward with your life with or without your pain
- “An enjoyable life”—learning to execute your vision
More critical concepts:
Since anxiety is intended to be an extremely unpleasant, deeply seated core survival reaction, you’ll do almost anything to avoid it. Essentially, anxiety is pain. The basic intent of it is to cause you to act in a manner to diminish a threat (control) and move on.
When you can’t escape a mental (thoughts) or physical threat, your body will secrete more stress hormones to increase your chances of survival. The sensation generated is anger. Anger is anxiety with a chemical kick. It’s even less subject to rational interventions.
Not only are there strategies to decrease the stress hormones, but there are also powerful ways to stimulate increased levels of relaxation (play) chemicals, such as:
- Oxytocin—bonding, the “love” drug
- Serotonin—mood elevator
- GABA hormones—the body’s equivalent of Valium
This dramatically different chemical environment generates a deep sense of well-being.
Your capacity to enjoy your life depends on your skills in minimizing your levels of stress hormones and stimulating your “play” chemicals. Modern neuroscience has documented why “laughter is the best medicine” and also shown how to experience a good life.
1. Eisenberger, N. “The neural bases of social pain: Evidence for shared representations with physical pain.” Psychosomatic Medicine(2012); 74: 126 – 135.