Anxiety’s Sympathetic Friend
How do you tell if anxiety is taking hold of you?
You feel your chest tighten, as your heart rate increases and breathing becomes shallow and starts to quicken. You notice discomfort in your stomach and mental clarity quickly descends to mental blur and fog. Your body now feels edgy and the urgency to seek an escape from the current surroundings rapidly increases to desperation, perceived to be the only option to alleviate the feelings that are building in intensity.
This is a general example of what some people may experience when suffering anxiety or panic. The truth is, there are many possible ways people experience anxiety with some symptoms incredibly severe and debilitating, whilst some symptoms are more manageable. The difference between anxiety and panic is that with panic it feels much like anxiety, however, dialled up to 100 with little or no warning and then back to 0 usually within minutes, leaving behind feelings of utter exhaustion and overwhelm.
Globally anxiety is one of the most common disorders affecting hundreds of millions of people every day. According to the World Health Organisation, global prevalence increased by 26% due to the pandemic with this number likely to increase further given the complex and unknown effects of Covid-19. Anxiety is the most common disorder in Australia affecting 1 in 6 Australians, with prevalence greater for women. Given these statistics are based on known cases, it is possible the prevalence is actually much higher. Anxiety is something many people shy away from acknowledging they have or feel embarrassed that they experience, and yet in doing so this can amplify the frequency and intensity of symptoms experienced.
So what exactly is anxiety? It is an emotion relating to something in the future and is characterised by negative thoughts, typically fear or worry, and physical changes such as tension or a racing heart. Anxiety can be a specific fear or phobia of a person, place or situation. Anxiety can also be more general, about many or all things. Anxiety can be due to past trauma or negative experiences. Anxiety can also develop from repeated negative thoughts. Essentially, anxiety is something almost everyone experiences, whether we admit it or not – it can be as simple (and sometimes useful) as ‘nerves’ before a sports competition or a significant public speaking presentation, or more complex where it is debilitating, preventing someone from leaving their house to check the mailbox. Anxiety, left untreated, can and often does develop into fear/worry about the anxiety itself– the deep psychological concern about experiencing the whole-body sensations they feel when they are anxious. They fear the fear.
To better understand why we have such a whole-body experience for something that is a psychological issue, let me introduce you to your Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The ANS is a key part of our nervous system and essentially controls the “fight, flight or freeze” response that we all can have at different times. Why is this important? Although it is an automated response, we also have the ability to help regulate it. Let me explain.
In a very simplified explanation, the ANS has two antagonistic parts, the ‘Sympathetic’ and ‘Parasympathetic’. I like to think of the Sympathetic as the “fight or flight” mode and the Parasympathetic as the “rest and digest” mode. In short, when a stressful situation or our own thinking triggers our sympathetic part of our ANS this in turn switches on a plethora of physical symptoms, which differ slightly with each person. These symptoms can include, but are not limited to, increased heart-rate, changes in breathing (faster and/or more shallow), nausea or light-headedness, hot and sweaty, cold and clammy, an increased frequency of using the bathroom, and more.
What I find most interesting from all the physiological responses that can be triggered from turning on our sympathetic ANS is that every single one is automatic (controlled by our subconscious) with one only having the ability to also have conscious control. Our breath. Our ability to control such an unconscious automatic function actually gives us the key to ‘circuit-break’ any anxiety or panic we might be experiencing. To be clear, regulating consistent breathing is not belly/relaxation breathing. In situations of anxiety and/or panic we don’t have the mental focus or physiological ability at that moment to conduct the deep relaxation breathing, hence focussing on regulating the breathing is sufficient to assist with reducing our heightened state.
The type of breathing that is most useful is a much more simple and measured approach – I most often teach a square or a triangle, having clients count to 3 or 4 for each breath, interspersing a pause/hold between each breath in and out. Rationally this might seem too simple, however, it is in the application and repetition of the practice that we find the benefit. Remember, this is not the magic wand to stop anxiety symptoms…it is however the first step to circuit-break the link between the psychological and physiological, providing a reduction in symptom severity and an increase in mental clarity. A downloadable pdf, with further information, is available on my website oasismindbody.com.
Anxiety can be both a benefit and a hindrance, depending on whether we transform it into fuel for our increased performance or we see it increase sufficiently to hinder performance or create avoidance. Should we find that anxiety is negatively impacting us the most important thing to remember is it can be 100% manageable, you just need to know how. Understanding how to regulate and use breathing is only one part of this process. Remember to reach out to an appropriate health professional should you need to learn these self-health tools to help support you to manage your anxiety now and in the future.