The Chinese sage Lao-Tse commented that: The biggest problem in the world could have been solved when it was small.’
This certainly holds true when it comes to anxiety and stress.
In my workshops I sometimes set light to a scrap of paper and show how easily the flames can be extinguished using a small amount of water. I go on to explain that had the flames been allowed to get out of control, so that first the table, then the other furnishings and drapes had caught alight it would have taken teams of professional fire-fighters to extinguish the blaze.
It’s the same with anxiety and stress. If you can train yourself to detect the physical and mental changes associated with increasing amounts of either at an early stage, returning yourself to a relaxed and comfortable state of mind and body is usually fairly easy.
Before I explain how best to do this, let’s take a closer look at what happens when these curses of the modern world arrive.
When the Fire of Anxiety and Stress Burn Out of Control
Excessive anxiety is a curse that makes it far harder, sometimes indeed utterly impossible, to behave as we want and achieve what we deserve.
You need to stay cool, calm and collected at a job interview, when making a presentation at work, taking an exam or meeting someone for the first time.
Your heart races, stomach churns, mouth goes dry and mind goes blank! You may feel sick and giddy, start sweating and trembling. You feel like a fool which, of course, only increases your anxiety. Your mind fills with negative thoughts, such as ‘I can’t cope’, ‘I’m losing control’, ‘I’m going to faint’, or ‘Everyone must be looking at me’. Concentration falters, memory is impaired, routine tasks become harder to perform and more demanding challenges may defeat you entirely.
Anxiety does not always attack both body and mind. Some people become physically tense but remain clear headed. Others, although their body remains relaxed, become extremely mentally confused. Most often, however, anxiety is an unpleasant mixture of both physical and mental arousal which, when sufficiently intense, may produce a panic attack. You emerge from the experience dripping with sweat, your chances of success having plunged together with your self-confidence and esteem.
I’ll explain why this happens in a moment. But first the good news.
You can learn to control your anxiety and turn that increase in mental and physical arousal to your advantage. Below are some of the basic tools you will need to achieve this highly desirable goal. But let’s start by examining why this happens in the first place.
The Law of the Jungle in the 21st Century!
Turn back the clock to prehistoric times and imagine one of our distant forebears out hunting. Suddenly there is noise in the nearby undergrowth. It may be the wind or a small, inoffensive creature; equally it could be a wild and hungry carnivore with a meal in mind. There is no time for deliberation about whether or not the noise spells a genuine danger.
If there really is a man-eater in the undergrowth, such a debate would have a fatal outcome. Survival depends on moving almost instantly into a state of high arousal.
To fight or to flee efficiently the limbs require increased supplies of food and oxygen. These are carried by the blood, so the heart starts to pump more vigorously. At the same time breathing is increased so as to draw more oxygen into the body and expel carbon dioxide. Blood is diverted away from less essential areas, such as the skin and digestive tract, to make additional supplies available to the arm and leg muscles. The brain, too, needs increased oxygen and glucose in order to think more rapidly.
For our hunter ancestor this almost-instant response to potential danger might well have meant the difference between life and death. Even today, there are still occasions when we are under physical threat and it is at such times that the fight-and-flight response truly comes into its own.
At such times we may discover remarkable and previously unrealised reserves of stamina, speed and strength as this ancient survival system takes over. The trouble is that these programs are seldom appropriate to the kind of dangers confronting us in the twenty-first century, since we are much more likely to face threats to our psychological well-being than our physical safety.
We may feel very anxious, for instance, when faced with somebody who is verbally aggressive, even though there is no risk of our being physically attacked. In such situations the brain responds as if faced with an objective threat to survival.
Step-Up or Step-Down?
Your body has two nervous systems. One controls voluntary actions. We use it whenever we intend to perform some task, such as turning on a computer or getting up to make a cup of tea.
The second is the ANS, or fight-and-flight mechanism whose purpose is to take charge of those routine yet vital bodily activities, such as digesting food, pumping blood, breathing, and controlling temperature.
Imagine attempting any of those if, seventy times each minute, you had to order your heart to beat while commanding the lungs to inflate as you supervised body temperature, and instructed your gut to digest your last meal! Once switched to emergency running your conscious mind cannot easily or rapidly countermand any orders from the subconsciously controlled ANS.
Even though you realise that there is no reason for alarm your body continues to respond as if facing an urgent and immediate threat to survival. It doesn’t help to tell yourself to calm down and keep cool. Indeed because such instructions have no chance of being obeyed, what usually happens is increased anxiety as you realise that your feelings are out of control.
The changes which have been brought about by the ANS, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, more sweating and so on, can only be corrected and the body returned to normal running by the same mechanism which speeded them up in the first place, that is the autonomic nervous system.
This is possible because the ANS has two branches which, most of the time, work in harmony to create a state of normal arousal. The two branches of the ANS may be compared to the reins of a horse.
To keep the animal moving forward in a straight line, the rider applies equal pressure to each side. If more tension is applied to either rein, however, the horse will turn in that direction.
In the ANS these reins consist of two mechanisms. One, which increases arousal, is known technically as the sympathetic branch while the second, which slows the system down again, is called the parasympathetic branch.
As you sit at home watching TV and feeling relaxed and at ease, the slow-down, or parasympathetic, branch is exerting dominance over the system. As a result your heart rate is moderate and breathing slow.
When life gets more hectic and stressful, however, the speed-up, or sympathetic, branch gains the upper hand, raising heart rate, increasing breathing, sweating and muscular tension. To bring about these bodily changes the ANS relies on chemical messengers, hormones, to carry its instructions to all parts of the body.
The best known of these hormones, adrenalin, has been dubbed ‘jungle juice’, since it plays such a vital role in the fight-and-flight response. That sharp sensation of discomfort in the pit of your stomach which signals a rise in anxiety is produced by the sudden release of adrenalin.
Psychological Threats and Physical Dangers
The same arousal occurs, in the absence of any physical danger, whenever there is a threat to your psychological well-being. Suppose you are waiting to be interviewed for an important job. As the minutes tick away and the moment when you must face your interrogation draws closer, doubts creep into your mind. Will you be able to answer their questions successfully or make a fool of yourself and appear a failure?
Your fight-and-flight mechanism interprets these worries in terms of an objective threat to survival and increases the level of arousal. These bodily changes are noted by the ‘thinking’ areas of the brain which reacts with further negative thoughts about what lies ahead. You imagine yourself failing miserably and feeling humiliated. These negative management programs increase the strength of the speed-up mechanism and your body becomes still more aroused. Suddenly, you are very anxious indeed, perhaps even in a state of panic.
Because you are aware these fears are foolish, the slow-down branch of the ANS makes attempts to restore the system to normal running. This only makes matters worse, however, since brain and body have now become the battleground for a conflict between the opposing forces of speed-up and slow-down.
One is instructing the heart to beat faster and the lungs to work more rapidly, the other attempting to reduce heart rate and ventilation. It is these confusing commands which produce many of the most distressing symptoms of high anxiety.
For instance, blood drains from beneath the skin as it is diverted to the muscles with the result that you grow pale. Then it returns causing you to flush. Additional oxygen- and glucose-rich blood reaches the brain. Then the flow is reduced again. As a result you feel lightheaded and giddy. Your muscles tense for action, and then relax again, leaving them feeling like jelly.
All this happens very rapidly since, as I have already explained, the fight-and-flight response is an immediate call to action. It has to work fast, of course, since in a real emergency split seconds might spell the difference between life and death. We have seen that the ANS, our fight-and-flight mechanism, can produce arousal extremely swiftly and also that it is not normally under control of management programs. I say not ‘normally’ because it is possible, by using specific training techniques, to exert a considerable amount of control over the ANS. To see how such control can be achieved we’ll consider my earlier comparison between the two branches of the ANS and the reins of a horse.
Imagine that the animal has been pulled sharply to the right by an inexperienced rider. In order to return the horse to a straight line the rider must now apply more pressure to the left-hand rein. Similarly, when the speed-up branch of the ANS has gained the ascendency we can restore the system to normal running by deliberately strengthening the slow-down branch.
This can be done by learning how to relax. Relaxation is the body’s natural antidote to anxiety since it is impossible to be both anxious and relaxed at the same time. Not only does relaxation help you to bring anxiety under control, but it also permits you to set arousal levels at any point you wish.