Most of us realise how irrational our thinking is when we are anxious or stressed. Most of us that have suffered from any kind of anxiety or panic have had those vivid, stubborn, intrusive negative thoughts going through our head. In the cold light of day of course we know they are not true – if we had stayed in that supermarket check-out queue we would neither have had a heart attack nor died, and you’ve felt like you were fainting many times but have in fact never fainted.
So, our automatic negative thoughts are complete rubbish. CBT to the rescue, we can simply identify them and replace them with something more positive and realistic. Except we can’t. When we are in a heightened state of anxiety, identifying and replacing thoughts by recognising how irrational and untrue they are is almost impossible. CBT gets round this by suggesting thoughts are written down first, and then dealt with. This is a much better approach as the process of writing things down slows us down. Problem is, it’s not always practical or possible to examine our thoughts on paper while we are in a situation which is causing anxiety. That means we have to write the thoughts either before or after they occur and apply our rationality in the situation. This is hard and there is a good physiological reason why.
When we are anxious, various parts of our bodies shut down as blood and therefore energy is diverted to the fight or flight response. It is for this reason that our digestion can be troublesome leading to feelings of nausea or diarrhoea – our digestive system is not needed for immediate fight or flight so in times of anxiety it can be temporarily shut off. Along the same lines, when we are anxious or stressed or panicking the link from our developed rational rain is lost. That thoughtful part of us, that knows that the potential danger isn’t really anything to worry about is too labour intensive and not useful when we are in real danger, therefore we have evolved to break that connection during stressful times.
This is bad news for anxiety sufferers. Unless we can re-establish that rational part of our brain during stressful times it is hard to break the cycle of anxiety. So what then can we do? The answer is simple…relax.
When we relax all of the parts of our bodies that are shut down for fight or flight can come back to life. That physical relaxation allows all our mental work (identifying and rationalising negative thoughts) to succeed.
So practice formal relaxation everyday to get into the practice of being able to lower your stress levels in each and every situation.