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Hilary McMeeking | Counselling in Cheltenham

What's my body doing when I feel the physical symptoms of anxiety?


What's that feeling of dread or unease? It could be linked to your 'fight or flight' response. The rush of adrenalin that we feel when a sudden threat occurs is caused by the sympathetic nervous system suddenly kicking in. This part of our nervous system prepares the body for intense physical activity; the sudden rush of fear that happens when an unexpected threat appears is very useful, it gets our body ready for action, to defend ourselves or run away. When it happens we may feel our heart rate has increased and our breathing is shallow and fast; our tummy can feel wobbly (urgent need to go to the toilet or vomit) as our body gets ready to fight or flee. The flight or flight response keeps us safe in the face of danger, it's a good thing; our body is working for us, not against us (When we have anxiety, it doesn't always feel that way). Anxiety happens when we get stuck in this loop, or when our body becomes overreactive to the threat response.


Being ready to act was useful way back in time, when danger was most likely to be a Saber Tooth Tiger on the horizon. It enabled our body to run or fight, the response developed to keep us alive. Now though, often the dangers we perceive are not physical at all. Here in the UK, we live in a relatively safe environment that means we are not met with a daily threat of death or being eaten buy a large animal! However, when we get the rush of fear and/or prolonged anxiety it certainly doesn't feel as if our body is working for our benefit. The symptoms of anxiety; nausea, headaches, trouble sleeping, stomach aches, are so unpleasant that we start to fear the response itself, we feel our body is working against us. This can lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety and panic; we can be frightened of being frightened.


The sympathetic nervous system, however, cannot tell the difference between a monster coming to eat you or modern day threats (that feel just as dangerous to us). Domestic violence and abuse, for example, are threats that endanger our physical and mental health; they need to be run away from. When running away is not possible, our body is in overdrive and the threat response is switched on and running in the background, we are feel anxious and scared. We can feel threatened too by job loss, loss of loved ones and illness. Loneliness and homelessness are real threats to our lives and wellbeing yet the fight or flight response can't resolve them, we can't fight or run away, so it gets stuck in thinking we are under threat constantly, causing all those anxious feelings. What's more, if your body feels threatened all the time, work stress for example, it becomes used to being in a heightened state of arousal, we start to feel anxiety and stress most of the time, the sympathetic nervous system runs in the background, looking for danger, we are constantly on high alert. We can't see or run away from the danger but our body still has the response and this continues the cycle which makes us feel so anxious and stressed.


The second part of our nervous system is the parasympathetic nervous system. It has almost the exact opposite effect and relaxes the body and inhibits or slows many high energy functions. It helps us rest, by slowing the heart rate and breathing, it helps us sleep and digest food.


When we feel ‘normal’ these 2 systems act together and keep us functioning correctly. This is what we are aiming for and if we have not experienced adversity in our lives, our bodies function in harmony with the 2 systems running together most of the time, only activating the fight or flight response when there is a very clear threat. Keeping the parasympathetic nervous system 'online' keeps us feeling well and functioning with ease. It's when the sympathetic nervous system takes over that we start to feel bad.

So, if we are stressed and anxious, it is really useful if we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system artificially, in order to reduce our levels of anxiety and likelihood of going into overwhelm.


One way to do this is to slow your breath. Biologically we can't breathe slowly when we are running or fighting, so slowing our breath can bring us back from the threat response in order to manage our stress and help decrease anxiety, fear, racing thoughts, a rapid heartbeat and shallow chest breathing. We are sort of 'tricking the system'!


Below is a breathing exercise to try. It may feel odd at first and your mind may be thinking of what you could be doing instead (which means you are unlikely to feel any benefit). If this is the case, try to focus on the feeling of your breath coming in and out of your body; your breath, for instance, feels cold at the tip of your nose when you breathe in and warmer when you breathe out. Breathing out deeply, before breathing in deeply, is important to avoid the shallow breathing which we have when we're anxious. Breathing in deeply, with a slow and steady inhalation to exhalation ratio, signals our parasympathetic nervous system to calm the body down. So, remember to fully breath out each time; push the breath out using your diaphragm, before breathing in to ensure each breath is full rather than shallow. If practiced regularly, as a daily routine, it can really help drop anxiety and stress levels, making things feel more manageable. 

Note: This technique takes practice. It may not help the first time, or even the second. The best way to use it is to practice when you feel well, that way it becomes automatic and easier to reach for when you really need it. It's a great addition to your anxiety tool kit once you have the basics at your fingertips. Good luck with your practice...

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