I believe that our bodies are good. I believe that we were intentionally, intricately, wonderfully created. This includes our fear response: the part of us that is wired to accurately sense or recognise threat, and make an adjustment to keep ourselves safe.
We are wired for staying alive.
Because of this, I believe that we don’t need to shame ourselves and our bodies for feeling anxious or afraid. These emotions are data. They inform us about our environment and our experience of it.
Many of us haven’t been taught how to feel fear, or how to use it when we need to. We freak out about freaking out. And so we never understand what’s actually happening in our mind and our body, and how we can help our mind and our body to be calm.
Located within the limbic system of your brain is your amygdala. The amygdala functions like a threat detector. It is triggered in the presence of physical danger.
For example, if you were out in the ocean and you sensed an approaching shark, your amygdala would start firing, which would send a message by way of your spine to your adrenal glands, which would release a surge of adrenalin into your bloodstream. The adrenalin in your bloodstream would cause your heart to beat faster; your breathing to become more rapid and shallow; your blood flow to be directed away from your brain to your muscles and your muscles to receive more glucose for energy; your digestive system to be temporarily suspended and your bladder to shut down.
By causing all these changes in your body, adrenalin acts like fuel for your body to either flee from the danger or fight it – whichever is most likely to keep you safe. This is called the fight or flight response – ingenuous hardwiring to keep us alive. It’s as though our body temporarily becomes a stronger, faster, more powerful version of ourselves to either fight off whatever the present danger is, or to escape from it as fast as we can.
People can also experience a third response when the amygdala fires up – and that is, they freeze. Their body becomes overwhelmed by the flood of adrenalin in their body, and they become physically immobilized.
Sometimes our amygdala is triggered by real danger, and other times it is triggered by perceived danger. Perceived danger is when we have the thought that something bad could occur. It is an interpretation of something, an imagined reality rather than an actual event. So in the example I gave earlier about the shark, perceived danger would be arriving at the beach and starting to worry that there could be a shark in the water.
Now the amygdala is not good at differentiating between reality and perception. Perceived danger can be enough to trigger the amygdala, which means your body gets fuelled up with adrenalin in the absence of any real threat. Without the need to fight or flee from danger – because there isn’t any real physical danger - the adrenalin in your body builds up and causes the same fight or flight responses, only now they feel like anxiety. Your heart races, you are breathless, you feel hot and lightheaded, you sweat, you feel shaky, you feel nauseous, your stomach churns, you can’t concentrate, your muscles become tense. You might even feel claustrophobic, or have a strong desire to escape from the room you’re in. You could even want to lash out at someone or something. This is the fight or flight response at work. When these physical changes happen suddenly and intensely, you experience a panic attack.
Unfortunately, the more and more the amygdala – the alarm system - goes off, the more sensitive it becomes. When the brain is oversensitive to threat, it puts us on high alert even when there is no need to be. This is because when the fight or flight response is repeatedly triggered, the constant addition of adrenalin into the body causes another stress hormone to be released, this time from the pituitary gland. This stress hormone is called cortisol.
In comparison to adrenalin, cortisol enters the bloodstream more gradually, and it is also more reluctant to leave. Elevated levels of cortisol in your body produce constant physical changes that mimic the fight or flight response in the absence of any real danger. This is when anxiety becomes intrusive and unmanageable.
With adrenalin and cortisol turning up the volume in our body, we need to dial things back down. Physically, using our body to calm our body is very effective. Some strategies include:
- Slow, deep breathing (to recalibrate our levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide)
- Exercise (to absorb excess energy and give us some endorphins)
- Stretching and deliberate muscle relaxation (to release muscle tension)
- Being with people that we love and feel safe with (to release oxytocin, the bonding hormone that helps us to feel soothed).
- Listening to music
- Being in nature