If you have read Part 1 and Part 2 of my anxiety information pages, you know that you and anxiety need to team up to help you get control of your life and eliminate the problems caused by stress, fear, and too much worry.
But before I can tell you how to do that, I need to explain to you what anxiety is and why it is a part of your life.
Let me start off by telling you about your brain – your VERY healthy, normal brain.
Your brain has many jobs, but the most important job it has is to keep you alive.
Your brain wants to keep your heart going. It wants to keep your lungs and other organs functioning properly. It wants to make sure you stay hydrated and well nourished. And it wants to keep you out of danger’s way.
Your brain is SO amazing!
It has a unique method of doing all the things I mentioned and a method for probably a thousand things aside from that. But it is the brain’s method of keeping you safe from danger that I am going to talk to you about. The brain’s method of keeping you out of harm’s way is called “Fight or Flight”, and I am going to break it down for you in a way that will help you finally make sense of all the uncomfortable feelings you are experiencing.
You cannot survive without the fight or flight response. But more importantly, your anxiety cannot survive without it and the key to your recovery lies in understanding exactly how it works.
“Fight or Flight” is what happens when you are in danger and your brain “hears” that you need help.
Your brain is always listening to your emotions. When you feel scared or stressed, and your brain “hears” that you need help, it releases stress hormones as a response, in order to help you manage the threat. The stress hormone adrenaline is what I am going to focus on in this article, as it responsible for most of the physical symptoms you feel during the fight or flight response.
Let me give you an example of “Fight or Flight”:
Imagine you are walking down the street at night, and you sense that somebody is coming up behind you and you start to feel a little scared. Your brain immediately senses that fear – and I mean instantly.
(Brains are very efficient that way.)
But …and this is important. Your brain doesn’t know WHAT it is that is making you feel fear. It doesn’t work that way. Your brain doesn’t have eyes or ears. It is not going to stop and analyze the situation you are in to decide if you are over-reacting or not. That is YOUR job to figure out. Your brain is trusting that you know what is going on out in your world and that you can determine what is a threat and what isn’t. Your brain trusts that if you are feeling fear, there is a reason for it, and it responds accordingly, by releasing as much adrenaline as it thinks your level of fear requires to handle whatever threat you are facing. Your brain works exactly as a computer would, except that instead of responding to typed commands, it responds to your emotions.
When it comes to “Fight or Flight”, your emotional response to whatever is going on around you is what is running the show.
When that person comes up behind you on the street, your brain “hears” your fear, and immediately calls in for back-up. Your brain has its own 911 system, and it is adrenaline that responds to the call. Adrenaline is the amazing hormone that gives you fuel to fight your threat, or fuel to run swiftly away. Your brain has no way of knowing which you will decide to do, so it is very handy that adrenaline will help you with both.
So let’s break it down…..
You call for help with your fear.
Your brain is the dispatcher who receives that call for help, and decides how much help you need at that moment.
And the adrenaline is the body’s version of the police and fire department…..there to save you from whatever predicament is causing you fear. And with a response time that any fire department would love to have, adrenaline and other stress hormones SHOOT through your body.
The adrenaline acts as a super-charger that gives you extra strength for fighting and extra fuel if you decide to skip the fighting and go straight for the “flighting”. Adrenaline can make you hear better, see better, respond faster…. and it can make you hyper-aware of everything around you so that you don’t miss anything that may be a threat.
In a split second, the brain sends that adrenaline out to help keep you safe, and this all happens before you even realize its happening.
It is a system that works extremely well, which is why it has remained relatively unchanged since our caveman days. In fact, in some of us it works a little TOO well. Anxiety disorders are not a sign of mental illness, my friends. They are a sign of somebody with an amazing survival instinct. We would have made fantastic cavemen. Perhaps a little too neurotic about which berries to eat, but no saber-tooth tiger will be sneaking up on us, that’s for sure. This probably explains why in modern times, so many of us with anxiety are night owls who like to sleep during the day. In our caveman days, we were the ones who were awake all night worrying about an attack in the dark, while the rest of the tribe slept comfortably.
The point is that “fight or flight” has helped us human beings out a lot. At some point in our lives, I would venture to guess that we have all benefited from this “Fight or Flight” response and I would say we are all pretty grateful to have it. That is, unless this response happens without us knowing why.
Imagine our confusion and stress if the police and fire departments just showed up outside our door multiple times a day, and none of the officers spoke our language and couldn’t communicate to us why they were there. If we know why this emergency response has shown up to our door, it would feel understandable, expected and even reassuring to see and feel the presence of the squad cars and engines. Without this knowledge, we are only left questioning and fearing the unknown threat that lurks so closely. “Why is this emergency response coming to my home every day? I can’t see anything wrong. I don’t hear anything wrong. WHY?” The confused response this would bring is what it feels like to live with an anxiety disorder. However, as chaotic as it feels to not understand what is happening with your emotional responses, trust that your entire response system is working just fine. It is simply disordered.
So the logical question would be, “If there is nothing wrong with my 911 system, and my brain is perfectly healthy and normal, then why do I have this anxiety disorder?
Because the brains of people with an anxiety disorder have 911 on a perpetual state of re-dial.
“Why? You said there was nothing wrong with me?”
That is correct. There is nothing wrong with you. Your brain is responding exactly as it should with the communications that you are giving it. If you want to change the response, all you need to do is change the messages you are sending.
You have an anxiety disorder because you are constantly telling your brain you are in danger. The problem is not with your brain. The problem is that you have been ordering adrenaline like its going out of style and you haven’t even realized it.
The answer is because stress, whether chronic or acute, has exhausted your nervous system to the point that it is no longer as resilient as it once was. It is not your fault. You were probably a sensitive person, chronic negative thinker and a strong emotional reactor to start with, which can be tiring to your brain and your nervous system. You have probably managed to do okay in life despite that, though. But now, on top of those personality traits, some external experiences in your life are causing you even more stress, and the combination of all of these things has weakened your nervous system.
Think of your nervous system as your bodyguard. It is there to protect you and help you fend off the blows and hits from the stress in your life. When your nervous system is rested and healthy, it can withstand quite a lot without getting too worn down. It pushes away most of your stress pretty easily. However even the best bodyguards have a limit to how much fighting they can do. When the stress gets too much for your nervous system, whether through one very traumatic event or multiple smaller stressors, your bodyguard gets weaker and weaker until he just completely gives up and surrenders. So now you are feeling everything. There is no buffer between you and the stress. Your nervous system is too tired to even try to protect you from the the little things in your life that would never have bothered you previously. It just lets everything through to get a piece of you. Everything in your life is basically now taking a swing at you, and it all feels very threatening.
Things that never would have bothered you before, all of a sudden feel very scary, and you respond accordingly – with fear. When you respond with fear, your brain responds with adrenaline. When your brain responds with adrenaline, you don’t like the symptoms and it causes you more stress. The more stressed you are, the more reactive you become. The more reactive you become the more stress it causes. It’s easy to understand the whole “disorder” part of an anxiety disorder. Everything is just out of balance and needs to be re-set. I will get more into how to do that at another time.
For now, just know that unrelenting stress and chronic over-thinking/negative thinking have caused a shift in balance. Where once logic was in control, your exhausted nervous system has surrendered and it is your emotions that are in control now and they are keeping the phone in their hand at all times with 911 on constant re-dial. If you want to correct this imbalance and get your logic back in control again, you have to give up the constant worry and negative thinking and strengthen your nervous system.
I know what you are thinking:
Give up the worry and negative thinking? Just like that? Excuse me, but I have an anxiety disorder. I can’t control any of that. My brain makes me worry because of all that adrenaline or some other chemical problem in my brain.”
But that isn’t true.
In the absence of any other diagnosis accompanying your GAD or Panic Disorder, your brain is not sick or diseased.
Your brain cannot “control” your thoughts or alter them. YOU have to think every single conscious thought you have, whether it is negative or positive. It is true that your subconscious can lob some random thoughts out there that, especially in those of us with anxiety disorders, are often odd or worrisome or “trouble making”, but even in those cases, those thoughts are still coming from a very healthy part of YOU and you are fully in charge of how you respond and react to them.
It is all YOUR thoughts, and your feelings and beliefs that precede or accompany them, that cause your anxiety/adrenaline symptoms….not the other way around. Your negative thoughts and habitual negative reactions, are what push that gas pedal to keep the anxiety engine running. Take your foot off the gas by changing your negative thoughts and beliefs. Then, over time, the adrenaline output will decrease. That, combined with learning to manage your external stressors, will, over time, cause your anxiety symptoms to lessen.
If you want to control your anxiety, you must own your role in it. You have to accept responsibility for the part you play in keeping it around.
Every time you worry, every time you stress, every time you feel fear , you are essentially asking your brain for help. And the only way it can help, is to give you adrenaline. Your brain is essentially a drug dealer, and if you don’t want the drug, you have to stop asking for it.
Again, your brain doesn’t know whether you are worrying about a deadline at work or whether you are worrying about a possible intruder in your house. But you do. And if you are responding to a work deadline, or the sensation that you swallowed your steak funny, the same way that you would respond to somebody holding a knife on you, you can’t blame your brain for reacting strongly and sending out a lot of adrenaline. Once you retrain yourself to let your responses match your situation, you will find your disorder starting to correct itself.
Sometimes we become so overly sensitized that we aren’t even aware when we are afraid of something. It all happens so fast that we lost track of what came first – the fear or the symptom. This is where more of the “disorder” comes in to play. The truth is that when you have adrenaline coursing through you all day long, it can make you hyperaware of all your bodily sensations and cause you to respond to them in a flash. A harmless skipped heart beat caused by a little extra adrenaline can cause a fearful response without you even having time to consciously process that you had a skipped heartbeat. It seems as though you have an adrenaline rush that comes from nowhere and it terrifies you, when actually the rush of adrenaline was caused by your micro-response to that skipped heartbeat. This type of misunderstanding between you and your brain is a HUGE factor in your anxiety disorder. You begin to unknowingly fear your response to fear. And that is what keeps you in a state of fear. Seems deep, right? But it’s not. It’s really quite basic and easy and logical. And most importantly….its a NORMAL reaction, for negative leaning, overthinking analyzers like those of us who live with anxiety are.
Here are some common symptoms of adrenaline:
Racing and/or Pounding Heart
Hyper-Awareness of your Bodily Sensations and Your Thoughts
The Urge to Run and Flee a Situation Without Knowing Why
Constant Sense of Dread and Doom/Feeling as Though Something Bad is About To Happen
Stomach Upset/ Bowel Upset
The Feeling That You are Going to Pass Out
The Feeling That your Legs Won’t be Able to Hold You Up
The Feeling that you Might Freak Out and Do Something Crazy
The Feeling That You Can’t Get a Full Breath
Shaky and/or Tingling Hands/Fingers
Numbness in your Extremities
Thoughts that Race or Seem Bizarre or Out of Your Control.
I mean, is it any wonder we think we are dying half the time?! The things we worry about may be “all in our heads”, but these symptoms certainly aren’t!
The above list of symptoms would probably look almost exactly the same if I asked you to list the symptoms of your anxiety disorder. Because a great deal of your anxiety disorder symptoms ARE your adrenaline side effects. They are one and the same. Adrenaline being released is a symptom of anxiety. And all of those feelings I mentioned above are simply side effects of that adrenaline. It’s all very logical and very natural. Even your wildest feelings, your wildest thoughts, and your wildest reactions are all part of this very normal anxiety response system that we were born with .
Of course, not knowing this is what is going on, your adrenaline symptoms just don’t seem to make sense. And they create fear in you which your brain “hears” and of course it keeps that adrenaline fear/cycle going. Now you and your brain are basically running in a circle chasing each other’s tails with neither of you knowing that you are causing the other one’s strong reaction.
One of you has to pull yourself out of the loop. And it won’t be your brain. It’s got to be you. However, this can be tough to do and as I mentioned before, it all goes back to our nervous system.
After an extended period of over-reacting to adrenaline symptoms and/or living with chronic stress, your entire nervous system becomes very tired.
At this point, your anxiety disorder has “erupted” and you are now what they call “overly sensitized”. Your nervous system breaks down. Yes, I said it. The dreaded nervous breakdown. Yes there is such a thing but the good news is that if you are reading this article you are probably currently experiencing yours and there isn’t much more to fear. Nervous breakdown doesn’t mean you are “crazy”. It just means you are over-whelmed by stress. That’s all it has ever meant despite the ugly stigma it has been given. I can proudly say I have had a couple of nervous breakdowns and never once did I lose my sanity. What I did lose was my ability to rationalize my way through my fears, but once I took steps to get my life back in my control again, I regained my ability to do so.
Here is what can happen when you become overly sensitized. I am guessing you can relate to a lot of these.
You startle easily.
You over-react even more to things that you normally wouldn’t over-react to.
You sometimes feel as though you may be acting a little “paranoid”.
You get upset/agitated more easily than you used to.
You feel like you frequently see things moving out of the corner of your eye.
It’s not as easy to convince yourself of what is a real threat and what is not.
You find it very difficult to feel truly calm….ever.
You are feeling adrenaline rushes more and more frequently and you may begin panicking because of them.
Chronic fatigue, stress and adrenaline can completely alter your nervous system to the point where you cannot stop over reacting to things. Everything feels awful. Everything feels like a threat. You feel nervous down to your cells. It can be extremely difficult to calm yourself down when you are in this overly sensitized state.
Don’t get me wrong.
It can be done, and you should NEVER tell yourself you are unable to calm yourself, because the power is always within you, but until you have desensitized yourself, and really “practiced” calming down, it can be a challenge to find that mindset that is necessary to actually do it.
This is why it is so important to put a strong emphasis on desensitizing yourself when you start noticing symptoms of anxiety creep in. The sooner the better. Coping with symptoms of adrenaline is a thousand times easier when you are not living with a mentally exhausted nervous system and brain that have shoved you out of the pilot’s seat and have taken over because they think you must live in the middle of a war zone and disaster could strike at any second.
On a final note, I know this all sounds very dramatic, but it is vitally important that you remember and always keep in mind that all that adrenaline and all these anxiety symptoms are there because your brain thinks you need its help to stay alive.
It is all there because of the emotional and mental “thought” messages that you are sending to your brain. It is there because your brain is responding to how YOU interpret what is going on in your world. Your brain thinks it is helping you. Your brain thinks it’s doing a GOOD thing and it will continue to do what it is doing until you stop interpreting your world and your bodily symptoms as being threatening to you.
Your wonderful, sweet brain is looking out for you. And until your brain thinks you no longer need that protection..its just going to keep pumping out adrenaline and patting itself on the back for the great job it thinks it’s doing keeping up with you.
And rightfully so. It is a very good brain you have there!
Your brain probably has to work twice as hard as the average person’s brain, in order to keep up with all that you put on its plate – you, with your constant worry and self-analysis. Your mental pace is exhausting and your brain has kept up with all of it. Seriously, those of us with anxiety have the best, most loyal brains around.
We should throw a parade in their honor!
There is nothing wrong with your brain. It is just doing its job. Always remember that your brain “hears” everything you say, and you telling yourself that something is wrong with your brain that you are powerless to control, is not exactly what your brain needs to be hearing right now, and it is definitely not going to soothe your brain into feeling safe enough to shut off that adrenaline.
Read this over and over before you move on to the next page though. It’s a lot to take in and let’s let it float around your mind for a while on its own before we add anything else in the mix. And then when you are ready, move on to Part 4: Anxiety and Mental Fatigue.