This is a conversation I had with someone on facebook messenger.
Sarah: I’m reading through the articles on your website whilst I’m away that’s helping me. Anyway, I felt something catastrophic was going to happen and it freaked me out. These physical sensations Are awful.
Me: Yes they are awful aren’t they. But they are just sensations, fleeting energy that rises up as intense waves of adrenaline, nothing serious.
Sarah: How do people manage to accept them when they are so overwhelmingly awful?
Me: By letting yourself feel overwhelmingly awful. Acceptance isn’t about suddenly cutting of anxiety. It’s about ending the inner war we have with it.
Sarah: What is the problem here? The physical sensations because I am so sensitised or my thoughts around the physical sensations? I know I don’t have control over the initial oh my god this is a heart attack but do I have control over my reaction to this thought? Sorry if I’m going on I just really want to understand what is happening here.
Me: That’s right! You have no control over the initial thought but you don’t have to fear that thought because you are not having a heart attack and you will not have a heart attack because of anxiety and panic.
Thoughts, when feared and taken seriously will trigger a strong emotional reaction in the body.
But because during anxiety, we are in an overly-sensitised state, the physical sensations will be there regardless of thought. You’ll just feel this pulsating nervous energy throughout your body.
The key here is to no longer add the second fear to the physical sensations and the thoughts. Once you practice this over and over again, your mind and body will start to become less sensitised. Does this make sense?
Thoughts can trigger more anxiety if we fear them. And our thinking (fearful interpretation) about our already present physical symptoms triggers more anxiety.
It usually looks something like this: Thought > fearful interpretation of thought triggers anxiety and floods the body with adrenaline causing these physical symptoms > fearful interpretation of these physical symptoms causes more the body to release more adrenaline = the vicious cycle.
Does this make sense?
It always starts with our fearful reaction to a thought or bodily sensations. It cannot be otherwise.
Sarah: Yes I think it’s making sense. I am so sensitised I get bodily sensations all day everyday. Some part of my brain is interpreting them as dangerous and then I’m agreeing with that and saying oh my god I’m going to die and then it carry’s on and on and on.
Me: You cannot reason with the emotional brain unfortunately.
Sarah: So it’s my emotional brain telling me these symptoms are dangerous when it’s the emotional brain producing these symptoms in the first place? So the emotional brain is scared of the emotional brain
Me: Haha! It’s kind of like that yes.
The only thing it responds to is a counterintuitive response because this is what confuses the amygdala. If we keep doing what we are doing and it hasn’t worked, then it means we need to try a different approach otherwise nothing will shift.
We are consciously deciding to fear the feelings of fear and our thoughts, so this is what sends the message to the emotional brain that we must be in danger.
Sarah: So we are consciously fearing the thoughts and symptoms and we are sending a message back to the emotional brain that these are dangerous?
Me: Yes, that’s right. Because the brain cannot tell the difference between a fear reaction to our internal world of thoughts, emotions and sensations or a fear reaction to a real danger, it just assumes that we are in danger because that’s the message it’s receiving.
The brain is not a reasoning machine. It is an ancient survival machine that will follow the instructions which are given to it. It won’t question these set of instructions, it will just follow them.
Sarah: So, somewhere I’ve told the brain somewhere that I’m scared of these physical symptoms so it produces adrenaline to keep me safe when the adrenaline is causing the symptoms. This is right, isn’t it?
Me: That’s right Sarah.
Our prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain responsible for reasoning) gets drowned out by the emotional (irrational) mind so this is why it doesn’t see that we are just afraid of the anxiety itself. Because the emotional brain doesn’t work on reasoning, it just concludes that we are in danger because of the ‘fearful reaction’ signals we are sending back to it.
Does this make sense?
Sarah: Yes it’s making sense, thank you for explaining it so clearly. So, it’s the fearful reaction that we are sending back that is keeping this cycle going. It’s hard to not react fearfully when it feels so frightening though.
Myself: If it could see we were just afraid of the anxiety, it would say something like – “hey there isn’t any danger, you’re just frightened of how anxiety feels, so I’m not going to release anymore adrenaline into the body to keep you safe because you really don’t need protecting from something that feels really unpleasant but is in fact harmless. It’s only a false alarm. Just ride it out without adding second fear and it will settle down.”
But the lizard brain doesn’t have the ability to differentiate between a real threat or an imagined one.
Understand that it’s supposed to be frightening and feel unpleasant because it’s an internal alarm system.
We have to accept the fact that we are going to feel afraid because that’s the whole point of anxiety. If we didn’t feel afraid, then it wouldn’t be doing a very good job of keeping us on edge and on high alert when exposed to a hostile environment.
Sarah: Yes. I’m just wondering how do we show it we are not afraid when we feel like we are going to die?
Me: Our job then is to not add second fear to the feeling of being afraid. Afraid of the feelings of being afraid.
We can show it by changing our relationship with fear – not fearing it and fighting it.
We can also do this by practicing what WonderBro calls positive acceptance behaviours. This is when we behave as if all is well regardless of how terrible we feel. Dr. Claire Weekes talks about allowing our bodies to sag, which means to loosen up.
Avoidance behaviours are also what sends the danger signal to the emotional brain. If you struggle with avoidance, practice on little things to begin with until your confidence grows.