Anxiety in certain situations is to be expected. Sitting an exam, giving a big presentation, waiting for test results, or a job interview will induce some anxiety in most people.
Nowadays, fortunately, we are rarely in real life-threatening situations. Things like financial concerns, family worries and work deadlines are our most common stressors.
When we experience prolonged periods of stress and anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) sends out signals all over our bodies to alert us to threats. Information from our senses tells our SNS we need to do something.
Feeling overwhelmed, overloaded and overstimulated can cause us to experience anxiety and sometimes even panic, seemingly from nowhere. So, even though we may not be in physical danger, our body may send and receive signals as if we are, as it tries to regulate itself.
Many factors can contribute to feeling anxious. Stress levels, genetics, brain chemistry, traumatic events, and our environment. The past year is a good example of how environmental factors can influence our levels of anxiety.
Why does this happen?
Dr Steven Porges introduced the Polyvagal Theory in 1994 through his experiments with the vagus nerve, part of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). He focused on how our neural circuits read cues of danger in our environment through our senses.
From the moment we are born, our ANS intuitively scans our environment for cues to see if we are safe or in danger. This process happens out of our awareness. It also helps control things like breathing, heart rate, digestion, and salivation. When we breathe, we don't have to tell ourselves to take a breath, and this process is similar. We scan our environments for cues unconsciously, a process Dr Porges named neuroception.
Neuroception is the body's ability to detect risk outside of our conscious awareness. It could be from the external environment, inside your body, or from your perception of something.
Your ANS neurocepts determining how your mind and body responds to the information it receives. If it neurocepts danger cues, your flight, fight, or freeze response will kick in.
Physical signs that can indicate your fight-or-flight response is activated include:
Your pupils may dilate – this allows more light into your eyes, meaning you can see better
Pale or flushed skin: Blood flow increases in the muscles, brain, arms, and legs and decreases from surface areas.
Increased heart rate and breathing: This provides the body with the energy it needs to respond to the threat
Trembling: As muscles tense in readiness, trembling or shaking can occur.
The clues to why you feel anxious in the here and now might not seem obvious. it could be that you were raised by an anxious parent or have experienced trauma in the past. This could mean your danger cues may have become skewed, resulting in your body doing whatever it needs to, to protect you when your ANS senses danger, even if you are not in a dangerous situation.
What can you do?
Here are seven practical exercises to calm your immediate response:
Diaphragmatic breathing – This is deep and slow breathing into your belly (especially longer exhalations, such as methods such as the 4-7-8 technique )4 breaths in, hold for 7 and blow out for 8), box breathing (Exhale completely, breathe in through your nose for a count of 4, hold for 4, breathe out for 4)
Singing, chanting or gargling
Cold exposure (eg. Splashing water on your face, putting your hands in cold water or taking a cold shower
Meditation and mindfulness
Exercise (especially weight-lifting, HIIT, cardio and walking for 30-60 minutes)
When to seek professional help
Ask yourself: Is this level of anxiety manageable? If it is preventing you from sleeping, working, seeing friends, or you are constantly feeling anxious, please consider accessing professional help, either from your GP or a counsellor.
Research has shown short-term therapy to be effective in managing symptoms of anxiety, and longer-term counselling can help you work out what could be causing it. In some cases, your GP may recommend a short-term medication to help with the physical symptoms as you start therapy.
Here is a link to a beginner’s guide to the polyvagal theory and lots of other good resources by Deb Dana, clinician, consultant, author, and speaker who specialises in the polyvagal theory. https://www.rhythmofregulation.com/resources