We all face challenging situations in our lives, but we don’t all respond in the same way. This is irrespective of commonalities such as culture, education or upbringing.
A good illustrative example is when people experience natural disasters. These incredibly alarming situations cause people to react in many different ways; some become overwhelmed and paralysed by the situation, whereas others exhibit an apparent lack of fear and are even able to help others.
What causes anxiety?
It’s not necessarily the actual events in our lives that cause anxiety, but rather our perception of the things that occur. We all have different life experiences and consequently a different view on things to the extent that we may even give a different account of what has happened according to our own perception!
This explains our differing reactions, but what about the anxiety?
Anxiety stems from negative thinking. It may be a relief to know that our brain’s negative bias is actually for the sake of our own self-preservation! Our subconscious mind stores all of our experiences dating back to the very beginning of our existence, including our habits and unwanted patterns of behaviour.
We may sometimes wish we could remember events in our distant past, such as the day of our birth, but would it actually be beneficial to us to have all that information at hand, occupying our conscious mind?
The Theory of Inattentional Blindness explains that we have a limited ability to focus, so attention devoted to one thing may cause us to miss something else that to others is obvious. Due to this limited processing ability we apply filters. Otherwise sensory input would be overwhelming.
A good example to illustrate this point is when people learn to drive. At the beginning there are so many details to pay attention to, but once we become used to it, this new skill became so automatic that we could drive home even without recollecting how we got there!
When we interact with others or learn new skills, we engage our conscious mind which is where our working memory resides. Once we master new skills these become automatic and move into the subconscious mind, which uses the information depending on the stimuli in our environment. We all have had moments when we realised that something we learnt and thought we forgot years ago was actually dormant until the opportunity presented itself.
The same thing happens when we encounter situations that trigger a reminder of negative experiences or potential dangers.
Unfortunately, most of us encounter stress on a daily basis. Long ago, when we existed in tribes and grew our own food and built our own houses, we had a greater sense of control over our lives. Nowadays, many aspects of our lives are dependant on other people and it may feel like the only thing we really have control of is our mindset.
All this can be upsetting, especially if we are not sleeping well. Sleep is our most fundamental coping mechanism. It allows us to process the day’s events and remove the emotional charge from them so we can wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day. But often we don’t! Why is this the case?
How anxiety affects our sleep?
REM sleep, the stage of our sleep cycle which processes unresolved emotions, is restricted to just 20% of our sleep pattern. This means that if there is a lot going on in our life, our mind will wake us up.
We can easily tell if this has occurred as once awake we will often feel worried, miserable and unable to get back to sleep. This may be the first indicator telling us that our stress levels are high and we are actually creating a backlog of anxiety!
Anxiety is caused by negative thinking. One can worry about events from the past or possible events in the future and although we know that what concerns us may never actually happen – our thoughts still accumulate and are stored.
We tend to think that it is only actions that count but actually thoughts are just as important because our mind cannot distinguish between the imagination and reality. Sometimes simply imagining bad things happening can cause physical symptoms such as: sweating, stomach churning, inability to speak, or even panic attacks! This is how powerful our thoughts are!
Effects of anxiety on our physiology
Now, when there is sensory input from our environment, our thalamus is sending two messages – one is slower and travels to the cortex whilst the faster one goes to the amygdala.
The amygdala part our the brain is on a constant alert, referencing past traumas. If danger is perceived, the hypothalamus – which is responsible for chemical responses in the body, acts accordingly and releases adrenaline and cortisol to prepare us for fight or flight.
Fight or flight is a normal human response but is only useful if there is real danger. It causes all other activities to stop so that we can attend to danger. In the meantime, the cortex processes the message and gives an explanation or validation to the amygdala.
If a real danger is perceived, it encourages fight or flight or calms everything down, in case the situation is safe. Still, if the levels of stress are very high over a prolonged period of time, it may stop the rational response from the cortex and we may overreact to the situation or experience a panic attack!
Once the amygdala adds the emotional response to the sensory input it will pass on the information to the hippocampus, where our patterns of behaviour and previous memories are stored. So once there is a similar context in the future and the stress levels are high, it can trigger the same response!
In addition to that, the prolonged effect of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol can cause:
- Increased blood pressure
- Weight gain
- Visceral fat
- Fertility problems
- Memory problems
- Weakening of the immune system
How can hypnotherapy help anxiety?*
Hypnotherapy can reduce anxiety by creating the same effect as REM sleep which is our most fundamental coping mechanism. It can reduce the backlog of anxiety and consequently enable us to override stressful situations.
Our rational, conscious mind regains control enabling us to deal with previously upsetting situations in a calm and confident way. Once the anxiety is reduced, we may notice significant improvements in all aspects of our life – from being able to cope successfully with stressful situations to being able to maintain a better and healthier lifestyle.
* Results may vary from person to person