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.
It 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 for keeping you safe from danger that I am going to talk to you about. The brain’s method for keeping you out of harm’s way is called “Fight or Flight”, and you may know a little or a lot about this already, but just in case you aren’t familiar with it, I’m going to talk briefly about it and try not to put you to sleep.
Try to stick with me here, I know I am going to get repetitive, but you really need all this information to “stick”. This part is really important for you to understand, and more importantly, it’s important for you to believe, if you are ever going to fully be able to control your anxiety.
“Fight or Flight” is what happens when you are in danger and your brain “hears” that you need help.
It hears that by “listening” to your emotions. When you feel scared or really stressed, and your brain “hears” that you need help, it releases a hormone called adrenaline, as well as other stress hormones such as cortisol, to help you handle whatever is “threatening” you. This release of hormones is a direct result of your fear. It’s what the brain does and you couldn’t stop it if you tried. If you feel fear, those hormones are coming.
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. Well, 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. It 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.
And 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.
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. And it 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. Like our real life first responders, the police and fire departments, we all appreciate adrenaline and what it can do for us when we need some help.
Remember that every human being has a brain with the exact same 911 system, and the brains of those with anxiety disorders are no different. Our 911 system works just as well as everybody else’s….exactly the same….no differently.
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 an anxiety disorder?
Because the brains of people with an anxiety disorder have 911 on a perpetual state of re-dial.
“Why? What is wrong with me?”
THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH YOU.
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 short(ish) answer is because you are a chronic negative thinker and a strong emotional reactor. You worry and react to more than the average person does, often about stuff that the average person wouldn’t think was quite so bad.
Your emotions keep your 911 system very busy.
Always, always remember that worry is perceived as fear by your brain. It’s a lower stage of fear, I suppose….but still a type of fear, and it causes your brain to work a lot of overtime and send out a lot of adrenaline. (The amount of adrenaline that you receive is in direct proportion to the level of worry or fear that you are emotionally experiencing.) And that mental exhaustion you are living with from being in a constant state of worry and negative thinking, combined with the adrenaline that you keep receiving, is what is giving you your anxiety symptoms.
So now you may be thinking:
“Well of course I worry and think negatively. I have an anxiety disorder. It’s not my fault. It’s my brain making 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.
It 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 are what pushes that gas pedal to keep the anxiety engine running. Take your foot off the gas by changing your negative thoughts and beliefs. Then the adrenaline output will decrease and over time your anxiety symptoms will lessen.
I will try to explain further….this gets kind of long, and yes, repetitive, but again hang with me because I’m hoping to bring this around home in the end and have it make sense.
Every time you worry, every time you stress, every time you feel fear …..your brain is listening and releasing a little bit more of that adrenaline and cortisol.
Remember that 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. It only knows how strongly you react to whatever it is that is upsetting you, and it will always respond accordingly with what it thinks is the appropriate amount of adrenaline.
Sometimes its a little adrenaline that your brain sends out….sometimes its a lot, depending on your level of emotional stress. Your brain is VERY responsible and efficient that way.
This is what happens EVERY time you worry and EVERY time you stress or fear something, and it has worked this way your entire life.
Eventually, after months or years of you ordering up this adrenaline practically every day of your life being the chronic worrier that you are, your brain eventually just starts to keep the adrenaline and other stress hormones and never really shuts it off.
Its kind of like assigning you a 24 hour bodyguard.
And, again, here is why the brain does this….its really important that you “get” this part:
After so many months and years of listening to you tell it how crazy and unsafe your world is (at least that is how your brain perceives your thoughts), OR after one big event or change in your life that you REALLY reacted strongly too and are having a hard time coping with over an extended period of time, OR a combination of both of those things, your brain decides that you pretty much need its help around the clock. It perceives your world as so threatening, that you must never be without your adrenaline. You are on a “round the clock” adrenaline pump which means that you are feeling the adrenaline side effects ALL THE TIME not just when you are agitated or stressed or worried. And it is those adrenaline side effects, combined with the hair-trigger of your now exhausted nervous system, that people confuse with symptoms of some mysterious disorder or mental illness.
It’s very easy to see why it would be confusing and a little scary to have adrenaline side effects when you aren’t consciously afraid or scared of anything, isn’t it? If you are sitting on your couch and your heart starts racing while no obvious threat is around you, you are probably going to assume there is some unknown ailment or issue going on, right? That’s what most of us with anxiety disorders end up thinking, and that misunderstanding is what keeps our anxiety disorders sticking around. We begin to unknowingly fear our response to fear. And that is what keeps us 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 NORMAL for negative leaning, overthinking analyzers like those of us who live with anxiety are.
Here are some of the symptoms that all that adrenaline may be giving you at random times throughout your day:
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.
Here is why.
After an extended period of over-reacting to adrenaline symptoms and/or living with chronic stress, your entire nervous system becomes very stressed.
At this point, your anxiety disorder has “erupted” and you are now what they call “overly sensitized”.
Here is what can happen when you become overly sensitized.
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 it out 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 catastrophizing 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.
Ok, I think that’s enough for one page. I will do a sub page on how an anxiety disorder can turn into a panic disorder. I was going to put them both together but I think it’s too much at once. I already think this is too long but it’s too hard to condense into anything shorter.
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, where I expand a little bit more about the effects of being overly sensitized and other issues related to chronic adrenaline exposure.