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What is anxiety; the nervous system; the physical experience, and how to beat stress

Updated: Jul 15, 2023

By Kathy Carter, Anxiety UK-approved talk therapist.

I have always said that anxiety is a kinetic experience – a manifestation of emotions and processes that is experienced in a physical way. When the experiences drastically affect our life, maybe in the form of panicky feelings, changes in our behaviour (avoidance for example), physical symptoms and mental health challenges, this is typically the stage when we seek assistance. This can be medical or psychological (medication or talk therapy, for example); or could take the form of using some kind of coping strategy. (Positive strategies could include exercise and mindfulness; less helpful strategies could involve excessive consumption of food, substances or even material goods, just as examples).

Also, for clarity, I would say that stress is a response to a threat, and anxiety is a reaction to the stress.


So a stressor can be anything that causes a response to threat. It’s also important to state that anxiety is completely normal, and a useful human response.


So, what happens to the body from a neurological perspective, when we experience anxiety, or a reaction to stress? It actually involves intricate interactions within the nervous system, leading to the range of physical and psychological symptoms. Understanding the neural underpinnings of anxiety can shed light on its reactions in the body. (See below).


The nervous system and anxiety

The nervous system plays a fundamental role in anxiety, connecting brain and body. Within the central nervous system (CNS), which comprises the brain and spinal cord, there’s a strong association between anxiety & the brain’s limbic system, a complex network of structures involved in emotional processing. The amygdala, in particular, is known to play a key role in anxiety. It acts as an alarm system, detecting potential threats and triggering the body's stress response, and in some cases, a far-exaggerated fear response! (Think of it as a car alarm protecting your vehicle, that occasionally gets set off by a cat brushing against it, and has over-reacted).


Neurotransmitters and anxiety

Neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain, play a crucial role in anxiety regulation. Some help regulate mood and emotions, while others ‘turn down’ excessive neuronal activity. These messengers also help us process things like pain, reward and fear. We can think of the effect of neurotransmitters as being like a dial, as we would see on a car stereo or cooker, that can more precisely modulate the volume, or level of heat. Or maybe a set of spices that flavour and balance a recipe!


Some theories suggest that with anxiety, there are imbalances of neurotransmitter levels. A recent study into depression found that the ‘lower levels of serotonin in the brain’ theory (that many of us have believed our whole lives), was too simplistic, however. So it is fair to say that the subject of how neurotransmitters link to ongoing mental ill-health is very complex. What we do know is that neurotransmitters help regulate our moods, and also affect our sense of reality, i.e. whether we’re in a threatening situation, or whether we can relax.


The body's response to anxiety

So, I mentioned earlier the manifestations of anxiety in the body. The role of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is key, when it comes to understanding how we interpret and experience anxiety in the body. The ANS manages body processes we don’t think about, such as the heartbeat, blood pressure, digestive processes etc; and its ‘fight-or-flight’ response plays a significant role in the manifestations of anxiety.

When we feel very anxious, the body has released stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, preparing us to respond to perceived threats. This response triggers various physiological changes in the ANS, including increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli. It’s always useful to imagine the antelope that’s seen an approaching lion, and to imagine how the prey animal may feel. Basically, its body is in the ‘action’ phase, ready to mobilise. We can see how the hyper-hearing and primed muscles would be useful when we need to escape from a lion; but the responses become problematic when they persist consistently, when we’re under no threat.


Chronic anxiety and the nervous system

But why would the ANS react this way when we’re under no threat? Constant activation of the stress response means our body has less ability to adapt to stress, and a cycle develops. Over time, unless we break the cycle, our thoughts, emotions, sensations and behaviours settle into a pattern that keeps activating the stress responses.


Whilst anxiety itself is unpleasant and debilitating, and can show itself in our bodies via conditions like muscle tension, hand trembling, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), tension headaches, sleep disturbances etc, there are likely further changes going on, that are out of our awareness. These may include chronic inflammation and reduced immunity, and changes in cognitive processes, such as memory and attention. So it is essential to reduce the reaction to the stress response, in order to protect the body as a whole.


How can we beat anxiety?

As a talk therapist, I work in a holistic way, meaning that I believe anxiety is expressed in the body, and that the answer to the question, How can we beat anxiety, is not just restricted to cognitive processes like talking and undergoing talk therapy. The answer also includes more holistic ‘tools’.


Here are some ways in which I believe we can challenge and beat anxiety in a holistic way:


Cognitive therapy or tools/skills

As a Hypno-CBT therapist, I do support many aspects of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), a model that helps us develop strategies to change unhelpful patterns. Cognitive Restructuring is the basis for many of these tools, i.e. identifying irrational or catastrophic thinking patterns, and replacing them with more realistic and balanced thoughts. Great questions to ask yourself are: How true is that? What’s the likelihood of that ‘thing’ happening, as a percentage out of 100? What are the chances of me not coping, out of 100? Another tool, which comes from the model known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), is Cognitive Defusion, where we unhook or detach from thoughts, and develop a skill of being an observing ‘Self’ who can notice, yet not engage with, our thoughts.


Mindfulness and meditation

By cultivating present-moment awareness and focusing on the breath or bodily sensations, mindfulness practices help redirect attention away from anxious thoughts, and may promote a sense of calm. Regular meditation sessions, even for short durations, can strengthen the brain's ability to regulate emotions, and enhance overall well-being. This is something that can be undertaken in a hypnosis session with a hypnotherapist, but can also be self guided. (Although different people respond differently to self-guided work, based around aspects like motivation and also neurotype).


When we regularly practice self hypnosis and mindfulness, we can promote plasticity in the brain, forging new pathways around self regulation. Breath work can be immensely useful too, for example using a tension release breath – breathe in, hold for 5 seconds, release slowly, repeat. It’s also quick and easy to do anywhere. Silent affirmations like ‘I can cope’ can also be used with the breath.


Social support and communication

Seeking social support and engaging in open and honest communication with trusted friends, family, or mental health professionals can be a real asset when it comes to managing and beating anxiety. Expressing one’s needs is key here – a great question to ask yourself is, What do I need? Sometimes this can look like a shoulder to cry on, regulation from another human, or a need to be heard. Remember I said that unhelpful strategies to deal with anxiety could involve excessive consumption of food, substances (alcohol or drugs for example) or even material goods (i.e. excessive shopping)? Well, in those circumstances, there’s a good chance that if we’d had the opportunity to reach out to someone who had our best interests at heart (maybe a therapist or friend), and expressed our needs, and processed what we were feeling, we may have abated the problem in a healthier way.


Physical self-care

Physical self-care can include aspects like exercising and mobilising the body; walking is a brilliant example, and can be combined with other positive strategies like listening to music, or learning something from a podcast. If you can find a physical activity that suits your needs and mobility levels, you will probably find it a great asset, in terms of emotional wellness. But I also like to suggest physical self care tools round the senses, as follows, for embodied self care.

For example –

Auditory – i.e. listening to music, and creating playlists for the mood. Sometimes I find it’s useful to listen to music relating to the mood we’re IN, not where we want to be. So if I was feeling anxious, heightened, irritated etc, I would probably not go for soft, calming music, but would instead listen to something more heightened, loud and fast. After a point when my ANS had been regulated to a more comfortable place, I may change the genre to something different; but each to their own!


Scents – oil diffusers and other olfactory products and tools can be useful to help ‘shift’ a heightened state, especially if we find a scent we associate with regulation and calmness.


Taste – a strong or sour taste can also help ‘jolt’ our body into a shifted state, and also acts as a distraction, sometimes. Equally, comforting food textures or tastes can help regulate us.


Sensory pressure and touch – stress balls, exercise balls, kids’ play putty, soft furry blankets, weighted blankets etc can also help reduce a hyper-aroused nervous system. (Stroking a pet, like a cat or a dog, is great for regulation too, and incorporates the ‘neuroception’ between two mammals that have a reciprocal nervous system, as well as the sensory aspect.)

A psychosensory practice like using a Havening touch (a technique that involves crossing the arms over the chest, and stroking the arms in a downward motion, shoulders to elbows); or tapping on the body in a specific pattern (i.e. the Emotional Freedom Technique), could also help, as such practices can reportedly help lower the heart rate, and can shift the focus and attention away from anxious thoughts. A cold shower, or running cold water on the wrists, can also help to shift our state.


General self care

Meaningful activities like creativity and art, walks in nature, management of our own eating and sleep patterns, and instilling good personal boundaries, can also greatly help with our wellness.


I believe that a broad approach to emotional wellness can be useful. So for example, if I have the anxious thought that ‘Everyone will hate me at the party’, with the emotion of fear, the sensation of butterflies or a lump in my throat, and the behaviour of wanting to avoid the party, I could use the following blended tools:


1.Notice that I am having an anxious thought. Then ask myself what the likelihood of everyone hating me is; would that actually be so bad; and maybe I can cope with that difficulty? (Notice how I am NOT placating myself with the idea of ‘Everything will be OK, you will be fine’, which discounts my fears).


2.Use three tension release breaths – breathe in, hold for 5 seconds, release slowly, repeat. Use an affirmation in my head like ‘I can cope’ or ‘I am enough’. I could add a ‘havening touch’ to this process, stroking the upper arms firmly.

3.Reach out to someone – this can be in person, or could just be via text, or message. (If you know you are not going to get a response, due to the time of day for example, sometimes just expressing what we are feeling and honouring it can be enough, along with a note to say, ‘I don’t need you to respond, I just needed to share this.’)


4.Use something that helps regulate me, like a self soothing action such as spinning a ring on my finger, firmly stroking a finger nail, or tapping my collar bone. (Again, a silent affirmation like ‘I can cope’ can be useful at this time). Personally, I would always try to change my physical stance somehow, maybe getting up, going for a walk, stretching; anything to shift the energy in my body.


I hope this article has been useful for anyone that is experiencing anxiety, and has given you some ideas around to manage and beat it.


Access my other resources around anxiety at - https://www.arrivetherapy.co.uk/hypno-cbt-blog/search/anxiety






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