How To Reduce Anxiety And Our Bodys ‘Fight or Flight’ Response
How do anxiety and anxiety disorders manifest in your nervous system? And how can we reduce anxiety and our body’s ‘fight or flight’ response?
Human nervous systems were designed for a far quieter life than the ones we lead these days. Life was much slower most of the time for most of our history. The basic human lifestyle involved interacting with a very small group of other humans 99% of the time and occasionally dealing with a slightly larger group of humans in an emergency situation. We mostly lived in a very quiet environment where life was overwhelmingly slow-paced.
And our nervous systems are built exactly as they were back then. So the much faster-paced life we live now has great potential to create and trigger anxiety.
Modern human nervous systems live under a constant onslaught of information, stimulation, tasks, interactions, crowds, high-speed traffic and a never-ending stream of images, words and notifications. It could be said that we consume too much mental stimulation the same way many of us consume too much food.
The impact of all this over-stimulation on our bodies and minds is very complex. More complex than science is currently able to measure. But we don’t need people in white coats to know it can fuel anxiety and anxiety disorders, Not to mention other mental health challenges like depression. It is well known to mental health researchers that young men who live in cities are far more prone to depression, for example.
One thing we do understand is that over-stimulation and persistent stress leads to raised cortisol levels in the blood. Cortisol is the hormone that helps mobilise fight/flight/freeze activity within the body. It is the hormonal fuel for dealing with danger.
The interesting thing about stress is that it only raises cortisol indirectly. The direct impact is overstimulation of the amygdala and hypothalamus in the brainstem. The relentless stimulation of the amygdala and hypothalamus leads them to persistently message the adrenal system. Thus indirectly causing a change in blood chemistry associated with stress and anxiety.
Persistent over-activation of the amygdala and hypothalamus and their connections to our adrenals amounts to a never-ending overstimulation of the mammalian fight/flight/freeze apparatus within the body and brain.
Not only can all this overstimulation make it very difficult to feel good and relax, it can eventually cause physical harm to the body’s tissues. It can also make it challenging to process trauma and stress, both of which rely on balance within the nervous system to resolve.
When we feel anxiety, we tend to feel like something must be wrong with us. But perhaps the real problem in many cases of anxiety and depression is not us but our environment.
Viewing anxiety and mental health in this way can be somewhat comforting because our anxiety may not be as ‘personal’ as we sometimes assume it is. If a significant part of your anxiety is just caused by your environment, it could be easier to feel better than you might think.
If you spent 24 hours a day in a noisy underground building site, bathed in fluorescent light, you probably would feel anxious most of the time. The 21st-century urban environment is a little bit like that building site. Perhaps it’s just normal to feel some kind of anxiety in such an environment, partly dependent on your levels of sensitivity, of course.
The big challenge of changing our environment is that we become a bit addicted to overstimulation. For better or worse, our nervous systems crave familiarity. So when we are used to having our fight or flight pathways constantly triggered, many of us become subconsciously drawn to those triggers.
Let’s look at five possible patterns, activities, and routines that have a tendency to trigger our fight or flight responses in subtle and unsubtle ways. Then by acknowledging them, we may have made a small but meaningful step towards gently and gradually reducing anxiety and our body’s fight or flight response.
Social media is weird. There are plenty of healthy and interesting bite-sized pieces of information on offer. There are also at least as many somewhat negative or subtly stress/anxiety-inducing pieces of information on offer. These more negative posts are more than capable of triggering a spike in the brain’s fight or flight centers.
It has become almost cliché to say that limiting your exposure to social media is a good thing. But that’s for a very good reason, it’s true. So if you suffer from anxiety, it is well worth considering limiting your daily consumption of social media content.
If you find it hard to stop yourself from spending time on social media, consider doing a bit of housekeeping. Unfollow those whose posts trigger an uptick in your anxiety. Move from Facebook over to Instagram more often, then once you are there, follow lots of cute, positive and inspiring pages instead of those whose content has a more ego-ish or negative bias.
Emails & Notifications
Even email has the ability to tap into our dopamine receptors and become addictive. Many of our wins and losses in life arrive in the inbox, so our anxious nervous systems tend to want to check the inbox 10x more than is necessary. It’s not necessarily the worst thing, but it is another channel that contributes to the endless overstimulation of our poor frazzled nervous systems.
If you suffer from anxiety, a really easy way to reduce the impact of email on your nervous system and reduce our body’s fight or flight response is to turn the notifications to your email off. In fact, consider turning many of your app’s notifications off. That way, you can choose when you interact with the device instead of the device dictating that you give it constant attention. You can still check all your notifications but in a more deliberate and mindful way. You might be surprised how much this reduces your base level of anxiety.
Aren’t people great? Even the shyest, most introverted among us wouldn’t want to be here on this big ball of rock spinning through space all alone. Unless it was just us and all the puppies, that might not be so bad.
Even though people are great, if you suffer from anxiety they often trigger most of what makes you feel uneasy and anxious. This is no reason to shut yourself away, but it could be a reason to be very selective about who you hang out with, how often and for how long. Many people with anxiety disorders need plenty of downtime, where they don’t have to manage intense human interactions. There is nothing wrong with this at all.
Where the social aspect of anxiety can go wrong is when (often through people pleasing) we agree to lots of interactions we don’t enjoy or need. If that sounds like you, perhaps practice sometimes saying no to things you don’t really want to do, not all the time, but once in a while. Give yourself the rest and quiet time you need. It can be a beneficial way to keep anxiety under wraps.
Work and careers are a huge source of anxiety for a great many people. Perhaps even equal to close personal relationships. Most of us need to work to survive, so it’s a big part of our lives.
In fairness to work, it often isn’t as much to blame for anxiety as ‘the way we work’. Many of us blame work for our stress when really it is the pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect and keep others happy that causes much of the anxiety.
If work is a source of anxiety or stress for you, it is worth reflecting on whether it’s truly the nature of the work, the people you work with, or is it just the pressure you put on yourself. If it’s the people, you might want to work from home more often or even leave all together. If it is more your own baggage, then perhaps some therapy, coaching, or counselling might be the key to reducing workplace anxiety.
The news is a highly questionable reflection of the reality we live in. People who sell news know that the more negative and fear-inducing their content, the more people will consume it. It is also primarily moulded by the strong opinions of those producing it rather than a balanced reflection of events. These are just facts.
More than 90% of the time we read the news, it taps into some feeling of uneasiness or negativity within us; about things we can’t even hope to control. This is the price we pay for ‘keeping up with current events. And if we suffer from anxiety, it is a heavy price to be sure.
If you feel a moral obligation to keep up to speed with the tiny percentage of reality that the news covers on a daily basis, you should probably look elsewhere in your lifestyle for ways to reduce anxiety. If ‘peace of mind’ is more important to you than ‘current events’, give the news up, in all but the most dire global emergencies. I guarantee it will make you feel happier and more relaxed. And don’t worry, if something really important happens, it will come up in conversation, and you’ll still be ‘in the know’.
So there are some general thoughts on how environment can impact anxiety and what we can do about it. The most important thing is to go gently and slowly with anxiety. If you have been anxious for a long time, it probably isn’t going to vanish overnight, so just be gentle and patient with it.