Imagine yourself on the fourth day of your Hawaiian vacation, lying on a tropical beach in the sun. You are full of oxytocin, dopamine, and a few other chemicals that make you feel relaxed. Now imagine you are on the same beach and suddenly, you recall how your new boss walked in and began yelling at you. Your heart starts to race, your skin becomes clammy, and your breathing speeds up because of an elevation in your stress chemicals. Even though, in this scenario, you’re on the same beach and in the same sun, in the second situation you feel anxious, and maybe even upset.
Would you call being relaxed a diagnosis, or a disorder? Neither, probably. Being relaxed is simply a description of the state of your body’s chemical condition. So why would you call feeling anxious a diagnosis, or a disorder? While most of us feel that anxiety is a part of our identity and a mental health issue, that is not the case. Anxiety is better used as a term to describe the powerful neurochemical survival reaction that exists within every living creature.
How powerful? The unconscious brain processes 11 million bits of information per second, while the conscious brain deals with only 40 bits per second. Your conscious brain has no capacity to stop this reaction, nor would you want to – you couldn’t survive.
Anxiety is your bodyguard. It keeps you alive. You can navigate the planet avoiding physical threats and can take on new challenges by being and remaining aware of the potential pitfalls. However, when this powerful reaction becomes a part of your identity, anxiety shifts from being your bodyguard to your prison guard. It does feel like part of who we are, but it is only the survival response of your body. When your view of yourself becomes wrapped up in this reaction, you are trapped. Your life is now defined by your anxiety. Why?
I call it the “curse of consciousness.” Threatening and unpleasant thoughts are processed in the same region of the brain as a physical threat, but you can’t escape your thoughts. Any negative thought is met with a chemical reaction and it is sustained regardless of how we try to deal with them. So, every human is exposed to some level of sustained stress chemicals – also known as the feeling of anxiety.
Consider a high-performance dragster. It can accelerate from 0 to 60 in .8 seconds with an 11,000 horsepower engine. It can’t be stopped with just brakes alone and utilizes a parachute to slow it down. Trying to control your anxiety could be likened to stopping this massive machine with bicycle handbrakes. It can’t happen, but we keep trying. We end up expending a tremendous amount life energy with our ongoing attempts.
What consciousness does give us is control of the steering wheel. We can make choices of how to use this power. Other animals don’t have this choice. A tiger doesn’t have remorse about killing a deer for lunch. It also doesn’t plan on ways to engage in good or evil acts but are only reacting to the body’s signals to survive.
Humans do have a choice. If you can separate your anxiety from your identity, you will be able to thrive at a high level. You will have the freedom to evolve your consciousness in an infinite number of ways. Psychology can play an important role in dealing with your anxiety. It is a tool to help you become aware of and change your sensory input in order to decrease your stress response. However, relying solely on psychological methods can and will trap you in old behaviors. If all you are doing is talking about your anxiety, that will only reinforce feelings of anxiety. It is an 11 million to 40 mismatch, with your conscious mind trying to battle against unconsciously generated stress hormones.
What do you do?
So, if anxiety is the feeling generated by these hormones, how can you decrease your anxiety, especially since you can’t consciously control it? You have to decrease the stress hormones themselves.
To accomplish this, the first step is to separate yourself from the reaction. It will always be there and is intended to be unpleasant. One tool is to try and visualize a large thermometer on a wall and imagine the levels of your stress hormones increasing as you feel more anxiety. Instead of thinking of it as anxiety, use the phrase, “elevated stress chemicals.” Remind yourself that these stress chemicals, and your anxiety, do not define you.
Then, there are two categories of methods to optimize your chemical profile. One is directly, which include tools such as mindfulness, visualization, deliberate relaxation strategies, better sleep, meditation and exercise. Everyone finds methods that work best for them. These are necessary ways to process day-to-day stress. The other category involves stimulating neuroplastic changes in your nervous system to dampen the response. Stress is not the problem. It is your chemical reaction to it.
Utilizing neuroplasticity is the best way to decrease your chronic stress and is absolutely critical to enact long-lasting changes. Instead of experiencing stress with an automatic survival response, you learn how to create some space between the stimulus and the response. Once this space is made, you can substitute a more functional and appropriate response. The sequence to produce this shift is awareness, separation, and re-programming. While positive thinking can be helpful with changing other behaviors, in this scenario, it can be problematic because it suppresses awareness. However, positive substitution is the key. One metaphor is that of learning a new language. You can’t learn Spanish by not speaking English. Your brain will not develop new circuits by trying to alter the old ones. In fact, the attention paid to fixing yourself will just reinforce your default language of survival.
An Enjoyable Life
To learn this new language that I call, “an enjoyable life,” entails creating a vision of what you want your life to look like and then executing a plan to achieve it, regardless of the level of your pain. If you wait for the pain to abate, the pain is running the show and reinforcing old patterns. By choosing to move forward in spite of your pain, you will leave the pain behind. That is one of the reasons that we ask our patients to never discuss their pain or medical care with anyone except their health care providers. Your brain will adapt to wherever you place its attention.
Separating your identity from the sensations generated from elevated levels of stress hormones will begin a process that allows your humanity to evolve. Using the tools to decrease these chemicals is a learned skill that is not difficult. It is helpful to seek the help of professionals for support and teaching these skills. However, once aware of what is required to enact change, most people can master these techniques on their own.