It’s mid-July, and that means vacation. You’ve been waiting for this all year. You can’t wait to have a few weeks to just sit, relax, maybe take in a few books. And don’t forget the wine.
You arrive home and see your husband. He’s beaming as he gets off the phone. You kiss him hello and for a moment, everything is still.
“Guess what?” he says.
“I don’t know, you bought good steaks for the weekend?”
“Well also that, but something else… my mother is coming to stay with us for a week!”
The calm serenity melts out of your hands and you instantly feel tight. Your muscles start to ache and your teeth are grinding. You notice your heart rate is picking up as your husband asks, “are you OK honey?”
It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
I think we can see why our fictional character may be anxious in this case. A surprise visit by the in-laws on her vacation. Yikes! (If you’re reading this my in-laws, totally love you guys!)
So she’s anxious – but why does anxiety make us feel this way?
Like I’ve spoken about time and time again, anxiety is not a mental illness. It is a personality trait. Like all personality traits, anxiety can both serve us and hurt us. Anxiety makes us not forget our wives’ birthdays, and makes us turn off the stove. On the other end, anxiety can be the root of some mental illnesses, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Anxiety originally involved in humans as part of the adrenaline nervous system, called the sympathetic nervous system. It’s function? To help us stay safe in the jungle, and to help us fight off a predator – but doesn’t help us do much about it. Fortunately for us, we have evolved a way around this. As I’ve discussed previously, the brain operates through it’s connections, and those connections exist in very complicated but specific ways. This means the brain likes patterns. Anxiety is no exception. The anxious nervous system directly connects to the adrenaline nervous system, and turns it on when we are feeling anxious. What does the adrenaline nervous system do? Well it’s also called the fight-or-flight nervous system. This nervous system prepares our bodies and allows us to either fight off a predator such as a boar, or flight/run like crazy from something like a tiger. To allow us to do these things, the adrenaline system dilates our pupils, to improve our vision in the dark. It raises our heart rate and blood pressure to get blood to our organs and muscles, and tightens our muscles, in anticipation of a great battle or a long sprint. It freezes our digestion to preserve resources. The benefits of this connection-based system are obvious when we examine someone like a caveman.
Not so much with anxiety.
The brain doesn’t always distinguish one situation entirely from another, a symptom of it’s pattern-based operation. These same connections are activated when anxiety is caused by a seemingly harmless threat, such as news your in-laws are visiting. Increased heart rate and blood pressure can feel overwhelming and make it impossible to sleep. Muscle tightness turns into uncomfortable chronic tension. Frozen digestion becomes abdominal pain.
But there’s an end. As these things go, the physical symptoms of anxiety typically burn out over the course of a few hours. There may always be more mild chronic symptoms in the background but in general, anxious people are not always in relative crisis. Funny enough, the duration of the average panic attack (about fifteen minutes) last about as long as our adrenaline stores last.
And we can retrain these connections. Through cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) you and a therapist work together to identify the thinking patterns that lead to a number of mental illnesses, including anxiety. Once you identify those patterns you can begin to change them, and “train” your brain to not always turn on your fight-and-flight response, at least so intensely, when you feel anxious.
Dr. Travis Barron is a resident physician in Toronto, Canada.