I wanted to write this blog, to give you some information about the symptoms and reasons why we struggle with anxiety at times of confusion and change, and also to explain you are not on your own and neither are you going mad!!
In the past few weeks, I have found myself, getting angry with loved ones, watching far too much news, scrolling through social media and always thinking about the food I have in the house and what I will cook my family next. I am a solution focused hypnotherapist, I KNOW what is happening to me but that does not mean I can stop these thoughts from popping into my mind, what I can do is follow my own advice to reduce these thoughts and even to remove them for periods of time. Let me tell you what is happening in all of our brains and explain that this is completely normal.
We have one brain, but two minds. One part that we use when we are comfortable in what we are doing, when we are busy but feel on top of things can be called the intellectual brain. This part is positive, forward thinking, solution focused and rational. The second part is known as our fight, flight and freeze part. Everything that happens around us goes through a small part of the brain called the amygdala. This decides if what is happening is a threat to our wellbeing, it is faster and stronger than our intellectual brain as its only role is to keep us alive. This part of the brain is always negative, obsessional, on high alert and irrational. The intellectual part can be thought of as there are “no runaway tigers wanting to eat you”, but the amygdala on the other hand is always looking out for those runaway tigers!!
The amygdala, when activated, then sends signals to our body, it now believes that you need to fight or run away from the tiger which is why we start to shallow breathe, our stomach starts to churn, we feel hot, we feel frightened and stressed. Our brain is telling us that we are in danger and to obsessively look out for other tigers, we are on high alert. Our body becomes flooded with cortisol and adrenalin, if this happens for a short period then there are generally no problems. If this continues for days and weeks, that is when you notice, you feel more tired, you cannot concentrate on anything, feel overwhelmed and make poor choices with food and alcohol, you may feel teary, angry or removing yourself from others. This is why people panic buy food, they feel that this is one thing in their lives that they can control. Imagine when we were still living in caves, as a tribe we would kill an animal, take this back to the cave so our family could survive, we didn’t go out very much as the world was a dangerous place. The negative part of our brain has not changed since this time, so think of it as a primal urge. The intellectual brain has changed, when we are working in this part, we buy the food we need for the week and don’t feel the need to store food we may never eat “in our cave”
If we then feed the amygdala with 24/7 news updates, scrolling through many different social media channels, a diet high in sugar, salt, fat and alcohol, reduced amount of social interaction and no structure to our day, it is no wonder we are struggling to cope with the changing situation.
We have no point of reference of how to deal with this situation, working from home, seeing empty shelves in supermarkets, empty diaries as everything is cancelled, the brain is actively looking for past experiences to help us deal with what is happening, but we haven’t yet experienced this before, which again raises our anxiety. How am I expected to cope?
Here are some tips that can help you quickly and easily.
1. Look at what you are grateful for, and what is happening around you that is positive. You may answer “nothing”. Give yourself a short period of time to really think about this, your amygdala doesn’t want you to do this, it wants you to keep looking for more tigers. Your intellectual brain on the other hand is very good at finding positives. Little things make a big difference to our mental and physical state. Let me give you my example. I am grateful that I had a good breakfast followed by a hot shower this morning, I’m grateful that although I can’t see many of my family, they are well, and I am actually speaking to them more often than I normally would. My positives are, it is sunny, I have more time to learn Italian, something that I normally put off and I really enjoy my walk of the day. Now each of these things are small, I could view all of them as insignificant, or that exercise and learning a language is difficult and negative. When I think and then remind myself what is good, my anxiety will reduce, I am in that different part of my brain. My breathing will be slower, my brain won’t be obsessing or negatively forecasting, I cannot think positively and negatively at the same time. Looking at small positives can then become a habit and far more enjoyable that waiting for worse case scenarios that normally do not occur.
2. Breathe!! Have you noticed that if you are watching a thriller or horror film on TV, when the suspense builds you find yourself holding your breath or shallow breath from your chest not your stomach? Your intellectual brain knows that they are actors in a studio and it is not real. As I said before your amygdala is stronger and faster and it reacts to what you are watching giving you physical symptoms of anxiety even though it is not happening to you. The same happens when we watch news continually, always receiving bad news and making you think what could happen or what may happen. The news channels have to fill their time with something and very often this is not the positive things that are also happening. We are then primed to look for any other tigers that may be around. Be aware of your breathe, as you breath in through your nose, notice how it feels, hold it for a moment and then breathe out slowly and calmly through your mouth again noticing how that feels, making sure your’ out- breath is slightly longer than your in -breath. Again this has an effect on both mental and physical symptoms, mentally you are concentrating on breathing, so you are not on high alert and negatively thinking, slowing your breathing and breathing out for longer periods, lowers your blood pressure, heart rate and make you feel that you are more in control of the situation.
3. The quickest way to increase our anxiety is to ruminate (looking back on past events in a negative way and reliving the moments) and negatively forecasting, thinking to the future and imaging what could go wrong. Our brain does not understand there is a difference between imagination and real life. If we have an argument with someone and then we keep reliving it, the brain then believes that we have had multiple arguments, we also relive the feelings and emotions. So, when we keep remembering, we feel anger, upset, fear, whatever the emotion we had, we relive it again and again. The amygdala then thinks that there are many tigers in our life.
Negatively forecasting the future is equally as damaging, none of us know what will happen in 5 minutes, 5 hours or 5 days but the amygdala has great fun giving us terrible scenarios that generally never happen. Remember, a thought is just a thought. Thoughts gives us feelings and then emotions. We CAN stop this, if you have a negative thought, you can decide if you want to continue thinking is this unhelpful way or if you want to think about the here and now in a factual way. Changing thought behaviours is not always easy, but it does become easier the more you do it. Give yourself time to just stop what you are doing and think what positive things are happening and when you are in your intellectual mind, facts and solutions are far easier to find. Even at the most difficult times of our lives thinking about the future in a more positive way can help us navigate our lives with a clearer vision.
4. Be kind to yourself. Do something nice for yourself, again small things make a difference. Take a bath, read a book, a short walk, a hobby you have at home, meditate, chat to a friend on the phone. All of these and many others that you will think of will reduce your anxiety. In many of my other posts and blogs I mention the three positives. Positive thought, positive action and positive inter-action. Doing something, thinking of it in a positive way and being connected to other people. When this occurs, we release some amazing neurotransmitters, serotonin, our natural feel good drug, dopamine, our reward and motivating drug and endorphins our natural pain killer.
Try something today and notice the difference this can make to you.
I know these are difficult times for many people, remember that it is OK, not to be OK. Periods of thinking, being on your own and working through what is happening to you can be a very good thing to do, what I am saying is that if this continues over days and weeks this is when we need to access the intellectual part of the brain and some up with YOUR solutions to YOUR future
Lastly, looking forward, we know this difficult time will end, lockdown conditions will be released and just think of all things that YOU are going to do when this happens.
Happy plan making 😊