Arianna Pipicelli (MSc Dip UKCP Registered Psychotherapist) Psychotherapy & Counselling in Highbury & Islington, North London

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COPING WITH ANXIETY


Historically anxiety played a crucial role for our survival. The amygdala, a primitive part of our brain, perceives a threat and activates a bio-chemical cascade that prepares our bodies for action. Adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol are released into our bloodstream. We experience increased respiration, increased heart rate, muscular tension, sweating and a feeling of dread, our pupils dilate and our sight becomes sharper. In the meantime we feel intensely alert and have to make a decision quickly –defend ourselves or run. Our not-so-anxious ancestors died. Natural selection favoured the offspring of the anxious – us.
Unfortunately the amygdala reacts in the same way to a real or imagined threat. Often anxiety is not triggered by real danger; it arises because we imagine ourselves in awful future situations, like failing an exam, losing our job, embarrassing ourselves in front of other people or simply not being able to cope.
Maladaptive anxiety stops us from taking risks and trying out new and potentially beneficial behaviours; this impacts negatively on the quality of our life.
To reduce feelings of anxiety we need to integrate those primitive parts of our brain with the more sophisticated ones like the cortex and reduce their sensitivity.

Short term strategies
The situation that creates anxiety is always in the future, so if anchor ourselves in the present moment the feeling will lessen or disappear. There are many techniques available, but simply reconnecting with our senses and our surroundings could be enough.
Activities that involve the left side of the brain might help, like crosswords, reading, writing and whatever involves words and language.

Medium term strategies
Sometimes our thoughts about what will happen are not realistic and that catastrophic scenario that worries us so much is unlikely to happen. Reconsidering our thinking style, becoming aware of distorted thoughts and challenging them can help.
Meditating focusing on our breath can be very effective, it shrinks the amygdala and increases the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

Long term strategies
One should face the situations that caused anxiety instead of avoiding them, and give oneself the possibility to learn that often things turn out better when we get through with them.
Because anxiety serves to prepare our body for action, regular physical exercise is great to release the excess adrenaline and cortisol triggered by the amygdala, it mimic what we would have done if the danger were real and we needed to fight or run away. It also changes the chemical structure of our brain over time and improves mood.
Isolation increases the symptoms of anxiety. Connecting with others, being in a loving, secure and supportive relationship with a partner, relatives, friends, a pet, god or the energy of the universe can be of enormous help. The hormone of love, oxytocin, makes the amygdala less reactive to fear and threat in anxious people.

To conclude remember that if you want to conquer anxiety you need to live in the moment, slow down, connect to your senses, think clearly, exercise and face your fears (maybe with my help). Good luck!


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