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What’s Happening To Me?

Anxiety feels like a suffocating weight that can crush even the strongest of souls, and yet it’s your body’s natural response to fear, threat and the unknown.

That response is usually transient, it triggers your fight / flight response, physiologically preparing you to either fight or run for your life. You might feel your heart pounding, your palms sweating, or your stomach churning – all a normal response to an adrenaline surge.

Very simply put, your brain has three levels of function the basal ganglia, responsible for most of your autonomic functioning like breathing, required for survival, the limbic brain, responsible for emotion, memory and perception and the neo-cortex or logical brain.

Things you see, smell, taste, hear or feel stimulate your brain, which then it works to rapidly identify what that means and predict the best action. A tiny, brain structure in your limbic system, called the Amygdala, which is responsible for emotion and memory formation, acts a bit like radar constantly looking for threat, once it picks up a message it processes it as threat or non-threat, and engages your autonomic nervous system to create the appropriate neurochemical reaction, (fight / flight or rest and restore).

A second structure, called the hippocampus effectively orders and time stamps your memories, so they can be rapidly called on. This filing system, if you like, gets easily confused by heightened emotion, overthinking, and when under threat causing it to misfile information, contributing to over use of fight /flight response.

While we might like to think we are logical creatures, that part of our brain works more slowly than your limbic brain, so most of your response happens before logic kicks in, which is why something can make you jump before you realise all is ok.

We are designed to function in rest and restore mode most of the time, using fight flight as an emergency response.

Think of an antelope grazing on the plain, out of the corner of their eye they see a lion approaching, the antelope literally runs for their life. While running the antelope notices the lion has dropped back, and seems interested in something else, as soon as they are at a safe distance the antelope goes back to grazing on the plain.

That is exactly what we are designed to do. Except our big brains have created something Neuroscientist Prof James Doty calls feedback loops, we constantly analyse, replay, and run scenarios for things that haven’t happened yet. This together with our ‘always on’ lifestyles, means we don’t get to go back to grazing on the plain.

Anxiety takes many forms, most start when your threat regulation system (or amygdala) triggers repeatedly, keeping you in a low-level flight/fight response, this creates an excess of cortisol and sometimes adrenaline in your system, which draws your processing resources away from your logical function, and keeps you stuck with a whole range of symptoms, feelings and emotions that exacerbate each other.

I’m being deliberately vague here, because the physiology maybe similar for each of us, but the experience can be wildly different. The way we each manage that that crushing weight is by learning how to stay connected with who we are and by having ‘go to’ strategies to help us in a hurry when we need them.

Remember that sometimes the workplace can be rife with fear, threat and the unknown, and most of us will feel stressed or anxious some of the time. If you are feeling worried, afraid, or if you can’t switch off your thinking, you may want to think about your physiology, most of what you are feeling is caused by a surge of neurochemicals designed to help you run away from sabretooth tigers.

One of the best strategies for reducing your anxiety is to burn up some of those chemicals, you might choose to do a few laps round the work carpark, but you probably don’t need to go that far, any movement will help recalibrate your nervous system, so a walk to the loo, coffee machine – for decaf of course  😉, using the stairs, even some deep breaths will give you a little short term respite, and if you can get outside for 10 mins even better.

With love Lynda x

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