All information in this article is acquired from Dr. Archibald Hart’s very helpful book:
Hart, Archibald. (1999). The Anxiety Cure. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group.
Meant for the Valley
You may be surprised to learn that your brain is not wired to live a high-stress, anxious existence! Rather, your brain naturally attempts to achieve a state of tranquility. There are “happy-messengers” called neurotransmitters that keep us feeling calm, peaceful, happy, and sane. You were meant to live in this “valley” of tranquility most of the time. Your body and mind are not wired to be too stressed and excited for more than short intervals of time. Unfortunately, when you are stressed out, your natural brain tranquilizers are eaten up.
Society on the Fast Track
In our society is it normal to live a busy and fast-paced life; because of industrialization we are given the message we need to achieve a large amount of tasks in a small amount of time. Because of urbanization most live and work among a large amount of people instead of with extended family out in the country. People are depersonalized and isolated in our culture to a greater extend than they were in other eras of history. These conditions of modern society make stress and anxiety a common problem. Many people thrive upon and love the excitement of the adrenaline rush. It can be exhilarating and give one the energy to achieve great things. This adrenaline is often addicting. The problem is that after an adrenaline rush, one’s body ‘crashes’ in order to recover. This crash results in depression and fatigue.
Be Excited…But Not For Too Long!
What many don’t understand is that the adrenalines rush, whether excitement over good news or circumstances, or from a crisis, is all the same to the brain. Adrenaline causes stress, no matter whether the situation is positive or negative. And here is the key: stress produces anxiety. Of course, short bursts of adrenaline are normal and unavoidable. However, it is not good to be too excited or worked up about anything for a long period of time. After being stressed or excited, it is important to calm down and keep your stress level relatively low.
You must come down from the “hills” of stress and into “valleys” of rest regularly. You body is not designed for a continual adrenaline arousal, but instead for continual tranquility with short durations of adrenaline arousal. When your adrenaline hormones are exhausted from overuse, then your body crashes and adrenaline is then under-produced in attempt to recover from its overproduction. With an under-production of adrenaline during those “crashing” times you will feel so vulnerable that even the smallest stressor can seem overwhelming.
Those who suffer from excessive anxiety may experience a variety of physical, cognitive, and emotional symptoms. Some physiological symptoms include feelings of weakness, a rapid heartbeat, tightness in the chest, hyperventilation, dizziness, sweating, muscle aches and tension, and fatigue. People with anxiety also tend to have thoughts of helplessness, self-consciousness (“everyone is looking at me”), fears of going crazy or losing control, and fears of having a heart attack or fainting. Emotionally, those who suffer with anxiety might be riddled with fears and worries of terrible things happening. They might fear being alone, feel depressed, feel out of control, become easily humiliated, and feel intense anger. Sometimes many of the above symptoms can persist all at one. In short, a state of anxiety causes a sense of chaos that makes it seem as if everything is awry!
Anxiety is Not Necessarily a Lack of Faith
Many who have grown up with an unhealthy religiosity are afraid of their anxiety; they assume their high level of anxiety is a punishment from God or indicates a lack of faith. On the contrary, anxiety is caused by high levels of stress and anxious thinking. People feel scared and helpless when experiencing so much emotional turmoil because they don’t know what is happening in their brains. It seems so mysterious, and this lack of understanding only causes more anxiety. People are anxious about being anxious!
The True Culprit Revealed
The truth is that stress is the real culprit! Remember that both “good” and “bad” stress disturbs the tranquility in your brain and lead to anxiety. You should not allow any type of stress to persist for long. Here is what happens to you physiologically when you are stressed: your brain assumes there is an emergency and goes into “fight-or-flight” mode. The goal of your brain shifts from “tranquility” to “survival”. Hence, the natural hormones in your brain that create happiness and tranquility must be put aside to make room for the “sad” hormones. The result is your brain becomes unbalanced due to the high level of these hormones that are in survival mode. The physiological presence of stress, in turn, causes one’s body and mind to stress out about feeling stressed, leading into a downward spiral. The outcome of this downward spiral is trouble sleeping, fatigue, depression, and even physical aches and pains.
Not All in Your Head!
Anxiety-producing stress is a physical process, not simply a psychological state. There is a difference between the mind and the brain. The mind is what we use to think, but the mind is closely intertwined with the brain, which is a physical process of chemical reactions. Many people believe the myth that anxiety is purely in the mind. Hence some people who suffer from anxiety feel they are emotionally weak. Stress, however, begins a physiological process in the brain that affects one’s body. As Archibald Hart says,
“The more serious anxiety problems are not just thoughts that have gone wrong, but biochemical events out of control. True, thoughts can trigger stress and hence anxiety, but the thoughts themselves do not constitute the anxiety. For anxiety to exist, a biochemical change must occur in the brain. And sometimes, perhaps more often that we realize, the change in biochemistry can result in anxiety without any “mind” component. You can go crazy with anxiety just because your brain is missing an important happy messenger. It can have nothing to do with whether you are mentally troubled” (23-24).
It is important, therefore, to calm your body as well as your mind to achieve equilibrium and find relief from anxiety. Here’s how.
Know your limits. You will know how much stress your body can tolerate when life’s challenges and demands are beyond your ability to cope. Your body must return, daily and weekly, to a state of calm. Simplify your life in order to reduce stress to a minimum. Take up relaxing and enjoyable hobbies. Take time to be in nature in order to get sunshine and fresh air. Sleep at least eight and a half hours per night. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and recreational drugs; they disrupt your body’s equilibrium. Do not take yourself too seriously. In addition there are sources of adrenaline arousal we barely notice because we are so used to them; for example: noise from trains, loud stereos, and driving on busy freeways. Reduce your exposure to these.
De-Stress Your Thinking!
Listen to the messages in your mind that create stress and attempt to change your thinking. For example, if you need continual approval from others, fear confrontation, and take care of others at the expense of yourself, you will suffer unneeded stress. Furthermore, realize that not everything is under your control and that is okay. Learn to let others take responsibility for their lives. You don’t have to do it all.
Learn to let go of the shame you feel. Are you afraid to fail, make a mistake, or make the wrong impression? You might feel self-conscious in a crowd. Learn to let go. Perfectionism creates stress. Realize its okay to perform at your own level instead of someone else’s, and to make mistakes. Learn to take your emotions such as anger and irritation under control before they create a high level of adrenaline arousal. Learn to say no to tasks that would push you beyond your stress tolerance.
A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way
Most importantly, simply understanding that your anxiety is not all in your mind but it a state of physiological arousal will help you calm down and not “stress about stress”. Know that your body and mind need to come down from the “hills” of adrenaline rushes and into the valley of equilibrium. Your body will calm down if you allow yourself to stop worrying about your anxiety. Take a few deep breathes! Don’t beat yourself up or over-obsess. A little education about anxiety will work wonders!
To make an appointment with a member of the Georgetown College Student Wellness Center’s counseling staff for help on this or any issue, please call 502-863-7074. Counseling staff include:
Dr. Macy Wyatt
Dr. Edward Marshall
By Audrey Wagner