Earlier in the year, NYC practitioner Abbi Klein helped us to better understand how grounding techniques can be helpful for managing anxiety. Today, Abbi takes our learning even further as she explains the physiological and biological roots of anxiety.
You are standing on a crowded subway platform. It’s been 20 minutes and only M trains have come by. You need an F.
You look at your phone. You are already late for work.
You check your e-mails to see if your boss got your “train delay e-mail.” No response. You switch to a social media app, trying to distract yourself. You switch back to your e-mail. Nothing. You try another social media account. Back to e-mail.
You read your last five text messages again, but your mind is still thinking about being late. Getting in trouble. Maybe you’ll get fired. Your palms are sweaty now. It’s winter, how did they get so sweaty? When will this train come? Why is it always delayed? What will happen next? Why is your heart beating? Why do you feel like a dragon is breathing down your neck?
Everyone is upset. You feel nervous. Your stomach and chest feel tight. The thoughts get quicker. You will never get to work. You will never be good at your job. You’re worthless.
How does something as simple as a train delay produce so much anxiety? Negative, racing thoughts, nervous tension in the body.
In my last post, I wrote about how grounding the body can help reduce experiences of anxiety. How using mindfulness to connect to your physical system can alleviate uncomfortable thoughts rapidly moving through the mind and relax the outer shell of the body.
Why do we get so “nervous” when our mind is activated with fearful thoughts? How does anxiety become so physically debilitating?
Because anxiety has a biological function, and like all biological functions, serves to promote our survival as a species.
How does this torturous experience help us survive you ask? Freaking out over train delays isn’t life or death. It’s just called the MTA / living in NYC.
Our nervous system is a network that allows our bodies to take in sensory input and communicate with the rest of the system how to best respond. Specifically, our Autonomic Nervous System, works to automatically react to important stimuli. It’s divided into two parts:
The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic nervous systems.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is what is commonly known as “fight, flight, or freeze.” When there is danger in our environment, our senses quickly communicate to react by flooding the body with stress hormones, triggering a reaction to get to safety. It’s the part of anxiety that is experienced with a spike in blood pressure, difficulty breathing, tension in the chest, and adrenaline pumping. It’s what makes you quickly jump out of the way when you see a car coming ahead at full speed without having to think.
Unfortunately, the SNS learns to get activated from less than life threatening experiences. Your phone might die soon and you don’t have a charger and are expecting an important call. You texted the person you are dating and they have not texted you back in hours, although you saw them post a story on Instagram just now. They are on their phone, but you aren’t important enough. They hate you. You will die alone. Panic now, please.
Fortunately, we are also wired with a remedy, the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), a.k.a “rest and digest.” The PNS slows the heart rate, decreases blood pressure, and stimulates digestion to increase nutritional intake and create new energy reserves.
While this two-sided system is there to automatically help us react to potential danger and then restore itself, when we are plagued by anxiety, worry, and fear, our SNS starts to identify these thoughts as reality, triggering the SNS to overreact and frequently engage our body response in this heightened state.
Ultimately, over time, our thoughts can shape our reality, and create a response pattern, where the nervous system (especially SNS) frequently overreacts, and our other systems are less empowered to step in and reality test our internal world against what is occurring externally, in real time.
How can therapy be helpful in negotiating anxiety as a nervous system disorder? Grounding, mindfulness, and strengthening of the other systems overall. Cognitively, looking at the stories we tell ourselves that contribute to this activation. Learning how to feel safe in a supportive relationship. In my work as a therapist, I also recommend physical exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits; such as making sure you are getting good sleep so the body can restore itself, eating healthy foods so you can absorb nutrients and strengthen internal organs, and physically strengthening the entire system through physical exercise.
Earlier in the year we learned about grounding, and after today we have a better understanding of how the nervous system works in times of stress and anxiety. Stay tuned for my next post, when we will look at how mindfulness and other techniques mentioned above can reshape our nervous system and overall communication of mind to body. This will lead to a better understanding of how we can reduce the experience of physical and mental stress that we experience when we hear the cloudy words of “this train is delayed because of a sick passenger…”
Thank you, Abbi, for continuing to share your perspective and knowledge with us. We’re looking forward to upcoming posts!
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Abbi Klein is a NYC licensed clinical social worker, yoga teacher, and anxiety advocate. She combines her training as psychotherapist with her studies of Eastern philosophy and related healing practices. Her goal is to help individuals learn to feel more comfortable in their bodies, have a better relationship with their mental and emotional states, and thrive in all aspects of living, holistically. Outside of her passion for understanding the mind-body connection, she loves snowboarding, exploring the outdoors, cooking mindfully, and being present with her kitty, Celine.