Beneath the trappings of civilization, despite our technology, laws, religion and mores, we’re animals. As such, we come with a phylogenetic inheritance from our distant ancestors.
All higher animals have an alarm response when danger appears. Just watch your cat’s tail bush out or your dog bare his teeth in response to a threat. It’s called the “fight or flight”response. It’s a good thing, and keeps us alive. It becomes a problem when the alarm sounds and there is no immediate threat.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll use the words “stress” and “anxiety” interchangeably because physiologically, stress and anxiety are the same. And they feel the same: pretty bad.
Let’s deal with physiology first. When we perceive threat, our hypothalamus (a region of the brain) sets off an alarm releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline revs up your heart rate and blood pressure and increases energy supplies. Cortisol increases blood sugar in the bloodstream, boosts your brain’s use of glucose and helps with tissue repair. Both hormones are highly functional for a real threat. But what if the alarm doesn’t turn off? The negative effects are many, including high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, weight gain, anxiety and/or depression.
Our brains and therefore our minds act upon our physiology and are acted upon by it. What often happens in the attic when the kitchen is on fire is what I call “Oh, no thinking.” For example, “Oh, no, this is going to be awful, horrible, really bad and then we’re all going to die!”
Anxiety is a complex interactive phenomenon between body, brain and mind. It’s unlikely that that you can lessen anxiety without addressing both the physiology and psychology of it. Some tools for anxiety reduction follow. Don’t expect perfection. Aim for a reduction in stress. Not all things work for all people. Find what works for you by adapting and modifying. The aim is to calm your body.
1. Take a hot bath, or use a hot tub or whirlpool bath if you can. The heat tends to slacken the muscles, which is where we carry a lot of tension.
2. Take a massage. A good massage will rub the stress out of you. You can also massage your own feet.
3. Pet your cat or dog. This will reduce your heart rate and blood pressure.
4. Do something fun. Watch a movie, especially a comedy.
5. Start paying attention to your breath. Whenever you think of it, take a deep breath and breathe slowly and deeply for awhile.
6. Get some exercise. It’s a proven stress-reliever.
On the psychology side, be aware of your thoughts and feelings in a given moment. Writing them down helps increase awareness. Challenge your catastrophic thinking (projecting that some future event over which you have absolutely no control will be awful.) For a clue as to how you’re feeling, monitor your physiology. If you’re distracted and your heart rate is up, it’s a signal to check out how you’re feeling.
Prayer is a huge help. People with religious faith tend to worry less and are generally happier. Give your worries to God. You may not know what to do with them, but he does. If you’re not a believer, try meditation.
We’re going to get through this, and when it’s all over we’ll be better and stronger for it.
Michael A. Morrongiello, Ph.D.