Anxiety: False Alarm or Real Threat
Let’s talk about learning to feel normal after experiencing anxiety. Learning to distinguish appropriate alarm from anxiety is an important step in anxiety management. A similar concept is the difference between a false alarm and a real threat.
Anxiety: The Body's Alarm System
Because anxiety is the body’s alarm system, you may occasionally receive a false alarm. This false alarm could be appropriate anxiety, like a feeling you get when you have to suddenly press the brakes. Or the feeling when you’re called on in class. Or the feeling when you nervously ask someone an important question.
Anxiety and The Nervous System
The central nervous system responds to changes in your body's hormones. This includes stress (cortisol) and adrenaline (epinephrine). The reaction to stress is a flood of cortisol and adrenaline. This causes the "fight-or-flight" responses. (Freeze and fawn are other responses closely linked to trauma).
Stress begins in the brain as it interprets signals from your senses. The brain sends signals to adrenal glands to release hormones. These signals activate the sympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is like pressing on a gas pedal. As adrenaline circulates, heart rate increases, skin conductance changes (sweat), blood pressure raises, and breathing becomes rapid. Extra oxygen goes to the brain which increases sensitivity to your senses. Adrenaline triggers glucose (sugar) to flood the blood stream which increases energy to all parts of the body. All of this is so automatic that it can happen before the brain has fully processed visual information.
Relaxation, physical activity, and engaging with social supports can help to trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is like the brakes system. You can engage this calming system most easily with breathing, distraction, visualization, and other relaxation techniques.
If you’re preoccupied with a worry that something bad might happen, or you feel anxious about getting anxious, these are false alarms because there is no real threat. The acronym for FEAR is False Evidence Appearing Real. This makes a false alarm. Negative automatic thoughts (cognitive distortions) describe all of the types of false alarms that a person might experience in anxiety.
The challenge of moving anxiety into maintenance/management mode is learning to convince yourself that the alarm system can produce a false positive. I heard this in a movie recently: “Logic will fail to talk someone out of something logic did not talk them into.” Relaxation and stress reduction techniques and other anxiety coping strategies help you learn to decrease your nervous system response to anxiety triggers including bodily symptoms. Once you have mastered this, your next task is to distinguish a false alarm from a real threat.
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