In our over-stimulating world, our systems responsible for anxiety are being triggered in ways that it was not designed for. For many of us this has led to an increasing frequency and intensity of our body’s anxious response. However, if anxiety can be re-framed in terms of its relationship with the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) we can appreciate its usefulness and regain some control.
The job of the ANS is to scan the environment (both the external and internal environment) for signs of threat or danger. In her book, the Polyvagal Theory in Therapy, Debb Dana describes the ANS as acting like a security system of a house. It is always on guard, scanning all incoming information at a rapid processing level (beyond our awareness) to detect any signs of danger or threat. As soon as threat is detected, the sympathetic response is triggered, and the body’s systems are put into action for fight or flight mode. Here’s where anxiety steps in. What we know to be typical anxiety symptoms (increased heart rate, tight/constricted breathing, hyperventilation, sweating, muscle tension, constricted vision, dizziness, feeling of being outside of oneself) are all normal experiences of the fight/flight response. These symptoms may feel uncomfortable, but they are normal and expected. Our system is getting ready to run, resist, or fight the threat. All of this is important when we need to protect ourselves a dangerous situation.
Unfortunately, those of us with anxiety know that it can sometimes show up without good reason and be detrimental in our functioning. This is because your nervous system can be triggered by false threats the same as it is by real threats. In fact, we humans have such powerfully imaginative minds that the simple act of thinking about a stressful event can activate the fight/flight response in the body. The speedy ANS doesn’t distinguish between a real, immediate threat versus one that you are replaying in your mind from last week or one that you are imagining in the future.
Keep in mind a surge of anxiety symptoms is not really a problem in most cases – the signal comes, we feel it briefly, and assuming there’s no actual danger, our system calms down returning to a regulated state. A problem occurs when the feelings of anxiety are particularly intense or untimely because people can start fearing the anxiety itself. This can lead to a cycle of increasingly frequent and sometimes debilitating symptoms.
Fortunately, we can use mindfulness to interrupt this spiral. If we can monitor our wandering minds when they drift to stress-provoking memories or imaginational stories, we can redirect our minds to the safe present moment, quelling the nervous system’s threat response. Therefore, when we feel that fear of an anxious response rise up, we can turn it into cue to return our thinking to the present moment. Take a couple of breaths, bring your mind back to a task, feel your feet on the ground, be present.
We can also acknowledge, that while the acute symptoms of anxiety are not comfortable, they are completely safe. Getting familiar with how your anxiety feels and welcoming the multitude of sensations is an important part of integrating it into your life. We can learn to accept the feelings of anxiety, and even befriend them.
The reality is, no amount of resisting, avoiding, or pushing away your body’s response to anxiety is helpful in the moment; it will just fire up the nervous system’s protective response even more. Alternatively, you can take a breath and say, “Thanks nervous system for alerting me, I realize you are just trying to protect me, but I’m okay right now.” We can observe and accept anxiety with a sense of curiosity and non-judgment. Rather than labeling your anxiety as “bad” or “unwanted,” observe it as a natural response to a perceived threat or stressor and use your mindfulness to determine whether that response is to something imagined or real.