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Why you may want to refrain from discussing your anxiousness and instead try this. Let's go to work on it.

Let's go back about 50,000 years to get a sense of the context. Consider yourself to be a Neanderthal enjoying a leisurely walk around the countryside. Suddenly, you hear the howl of a tiger in the surrounding woods. Your whole body begins to respond in a fraction of a second. Your heart rate increases, your breathing becomes shallow, your pupils dilate, and your body begins to produce adrenaline.

Everything that is going on in your body is positive; you are well-prepared to survive this tiger confrontation. There's only one little snag in the works. It wasn't a tiger, either. It was a weasel from the ancient era that was so little. Now that your body is primed for fight-or-flight, your heart is racing, and you're high on adrenaline, you should be aware that you are not in danger.

This is your body when it gets anxious. Simply replace the (nonexistent) tiger in the bushes with social media, traffic, politics, Covid-19, money, childcare, climate change, work stress, and family drama, and you'll quickly understand how and why anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting nearly 20% of the general population. Modern humans are just a bunch of freaked-out Neanderthals who are always in fight-or-flight mode, according to some researchers.

Widen The Window: Training Your Body and Brain to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma by Elizabeth Stanley, PhD, explains that anxiety is a bodily impulse that signals to the brain that "I'm not safe right now." The process is automated, very quick, and unconscious.


It's your survival brain against your thinking brain.

Throughout her research, Stanley distinguishes between the thinking brain, our neocortex, which is responsible for decision-making, reasoning, ethics, conscious memory, and learning, and the survival brain, which includes the limbic system, brain stem, and cerebellum, which is responsible for our basic survival, emotions, implicit memory, and stress arousal, among other things.

According to Stanley, one of the most essential tasks of the survival brain is neuroception, which is an unconscious process of quickly monitoring one's internal and external environments for signs of safety or potential threat. When danger is spotted, your survival brain sends an instantaneous stress arousal message to your body by activating the sympathetic nervous system. This results in the release of specific hormones that cause physical sensations related to our heart, breathing, and digestion to become more noticeable. Regardless of what is going on in our survival brain, Stanley believes that it has enormous ripple effects across our whole body.

According to Stephen Porges, PhD, a psychologist and the developer of the Polyvagal Theory, in an interview with PsychAlive, "These reactions are not voluntary. They are induced by the environment." Not on a cognitive level, but on a neurobiological level, our nervous system is taking up information from our surroundings."

The thinking brain is the last to realize that anything is amiss when we are caught up in a protective reaction, and this is important to remember.

Neither stress nor feeling threatened or challenged are determined by the cognitive brain, according to Stanley. Rather, it is the emotional brain that determines whether or not we will get worried or emotional. “The survival brain is responsible for stress arousal and emotions.”

As a result, if you want to monitor your worry, your body, rather than your thoughts, will provide the most precise map.

Trap of conversation therapy.

The difference between us and our prehistoric ancestors is that we turn to our trusted friend, our thinking brain, for help when we are anxious. According to Stanley, our prehistoric ancestors may have dealt with anxiety by running, panting, or shaking like a dog and allowing the cortisol to work its way through their system. “The majority of individuals identify their anxiousness via their ideas since the majority of people identify with their thinking brain,” says the author.

The issue is that our thinking brain is the very worst tool for the job when it comes to controlling our nervous system after a stress reaction (read: anxiety). Because, according to Porges, even after becoming aware of the bodily reaction, we are often unable to determine what caused the response. This revelation was a watershed moment in the life of Stanley, a soldier who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Stress and anxiety recovery is a survival brain task, according to the author.

This makes us very well-equipped to cope with issues requiring reason and logic — such as moral difficulties — but less well-equipped to deal with situations where cognitive thinking may actually make things worse, such as environmental concerns. Although having a "fight or flight" response when you are running late for brunch may seem to be an overreaction, you are physically experiencing it when waiting in traffic. To determine if a problem is "worth" being worried about, we utilize our reasoning brain to make a decision, and then we attempt to coerce our nervous system into compliance. “During such times, our awareness becomes detached from our physical body,” adds Stanley. Your thinking brain determines that you have nothing to be worried about, so you spend your days going about telling yourself that everything is OK while yet experiencing the physical symptoms of anxiety throughout your body, as shown in the diagram below. Even worse, your thinking brain may begin to condemn and blame you for continuing to feel worried despite the fact that it has assured you that everything is OK.

As someone who has spent many decades (and the equivalent of a home down payment) in talk therapy trying to figure out why you are nervous, I understand that this is a difficult pill to take. The fact is that not only did all of the chatting do nothing to relieve the anxiety, but it may even have exacerbated it. The survival brain tries to keep us safe, but when we ignore our bodies and their warnings because we're too preoccupied with our thinking brain's tales and ideas, the survival brain sees this as even more dangerous, according to Stanley. “Like a child, it will escalate the volume of its tantrum until its point is understood. And it is for this reason that it becomes such a vicious cycle.”

As an example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used types of talk therapy today. According to the Mayo Clinic, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may help you become more aware of incorrect or negative thinking so that you can see difficult circumstances more clearly and react to them in a more effective manner. That sounds fantastic, doesn't it? When dealing with family issues or trying to figure out an ethical dilemma, this type of analysis can be extremely beneficial. However, when dealing with anxiety, which does not occur in your thinking brain, it places the emphasis on the thought (“I thought there was a tiger!”) rather than the physical response that preceded, and in some cases, caused, the thought (“my heart is racing and I'm full of adrenaline and I need to get to the hospital”).

“Because anxiety in our bodies is unpleasant, we don't necessarily want to be conscious of and experience the discomfort in our bodies. Instead, we want to attempt to focus it and provide it with this external object,” Stanley says further. However, if the external item was not the source of the worry, then removing it will not relieve the nervous sensation.

Anxiety: a bottom-up method solution.

While talk therapy and medication are still the most common treatments for persistent anxiety, there are a variety of alternative options available that take a more holistic approach to the condition. In addition, while these modalities are still regarded as "alternative," an increased interest in "brain science" and neurobiology, as well as ongoing research into mindfulness and mind-body connections, is shifting our psychological understanding away from a solely mental focus toward seeing the brain and body as a cohesive unit.

As Pat Ogden, PhD, the founder of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, points out, part of the difficulty is that you have to complete the loop that was created when your body initially went into a stress reaction. Using the example of a client who is Black and who is often stopped by the police without a reason, Ogden explains what he means. When this occurred, the guy naturally felt himself becoming enraged and his body stiffening up, as if he were in the midst of a "fight" reaction. The physical de-escalation his body required in order to return to a regulated state was identified and practiced by Ogden as part of their work together, with the result that he was able to lash out and protect himself inside the safety of a therapy session. In order for his brain to be integrated and for it to no longer be trapped in his body, Ogden and her team aim to complete the impulse in mindfulness as soon as possible.

Talk therapy, according to Ogden, has certain limitations since anxiety is often associated with a dysregulated reaction linked to an unconscious memory, which is then erroneously attributed to a present event or idea. In the words of Ogden, "it has absolutely nothing to do with the present topic."

Focusing on mindfulness methods is important to Stanley, who provides a mental fitness training course to assist individuals develop resilience. And while telling anybody suffering from anxiety to take 10 deep breaths has become cliché, her training has been beneficial to thousands of individuals, including active-duty military service members. According to Stanley, “the military has a lot of experience dealing with difficult circumstances, and they've taught themselves to switch on the survival brain, but they don't always know how to turn it off.” Stanley's approach, according to research sponsored by the Department of Defense, substantially improved cognitive function under stress, decreased perceived stress levels, increased control, and promoted a quicker return to baseline following stress arousal.

When your body is experiencing a stress reaction, the first step is to become aware of things that aid in the survival brain's perception of safety, such as what you can see and hear in your environment. As Stanley explains, “one of the most effective strategies to make the survival brain feel anchored is to draw attention to the points on our bodies where we come into touch with our environment.” She recommends concentrating on the touch between your feet and the floor, or the contact between your torso and your chair. The healing process begins as soon as the survival brain recognizes that it is in a secure and grounded environment.

Obviously, when you are experiencing extreme anxiety, it may be difficult to take deep breaths or maintain a focused state of mind. When you're in a stressful scenario, you need to get the adrenaline and cortisol out of your system as quickly as possible. Jumping rope or sprinting up and down stairs are two activities that Stanley recommends. After 10 minutes, try another mindfulness practice to see how it goes.

What role does talk therapy play, or even just attempting to think rationally about your anxiety, play in your recovery? Absolutely. But only after your body has been stabilized, according to Stanley: "After we have assisted our survival brain in feeling secure and stable, then we can work on our ideas," he adds. We continue to have a cognitive reaction that is influenced by our stress and emotions.”


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