Bear in the Woods.
Everything is quiet and peaceful. Your evening fire is now glowing embers, your eyes are growing heavy, and you’re looking forward to drifting off. Suddenly there comes a rustle from the undergrowth. A flush of concern passes through your system. What if it’s a bear? Your whole body tenses. You need to be ready. If it comes down to it, you will either have to fight, or you will have to run.
Luckily, your body knows just what to do, boasting a number inbuilt features useful for this very situation known as the fight-or-flight response. Your heartrate increases, pumping more blood to your muscles. The bronchioles in your lungs dilate to oxygenate the system, ready for action. The liver releases glucose into the bloodstream for extra energy, while your regular digestive activity is inhibited, deferred for a safer moment. Your pupils dilate, and the adrenal glands release hormones to boost your alertness. All of these responses are governed by the sympathetic nervous system – so-called because a large number of bodily systems are activated at once, in ‘sympathy’ with one another.
So far, so good. But the thing is, being the urbanised creatures we are, rare is the moment we face such physical danger. Sure, we might make a wrong turn down a dark alley once in a while, but for the most part, we sleep in the safety and comfort of four walls, and there really aren’t so many bears around. We do, however, face a whole battery of other concerns – bills to pay, work dilemmas, family struggles – and when we’re lying in bed at night and turning our attentions to those, our body appraises the threat they pose in much the same way as it does the prospect of a bear in the bushes. It produces the same physical response, only this time it’s enormously counterproductive. We either rush through poor decisions or spend fraught hours avoiding them; engage in unhelpful compensatory behaviours, such as drinking and smoking; and we carry unnecessary tension, putting stress on our bodies and our relationships.
Anxiety is the psychological state that corresponds to the undesired arousal of the sympathetic nervous system, and it goes to the root of why most of my clients come to see me. The smoker fears not being able to have that next cigarette. The nailbiter’s hands go to her mouth when she’s stressing about her next appointment. The phobic experiences anxiety when faced with the often innocuous object of her phobia, and when the situation is unpacked a little, finds that she fears the anxiety she experiences above all else!
A New Response for a New Time
I have lived a long life and had many troubles, most of which never happened. So wrote Mark Twain. Our default anxiety response is an example of our biology falling out of sync with our remarkably accelerated cultural evolution. All too often it is employed in appropriately, becoming responsible for the vast bulk of our neurotic behaviours. In a nutshell, we imagine something bad and then act as if it were really happening.
So what can be done about this? The good news is that through various different relaxation techniques, including hypnosis and focused breathing, we can send the message to our body that we are not in imminent physical danger. In doing this we engage the parasympathetic nervous system, restoring calm, allowing us to move beyond automatic reacting into conscious, considered responding. You can read more about the parasympathetic nervous system and the benefits of engaging it in my next blog post.