The Art of Getting Anxious

Did you know that it takes just 12 milliseconds for your amygdala to activate your body in case of danger? This is quicker than lifting your cup of tea from the table, or even standing up…


So there it is – your body on fire! Your somatic and autonomic nervous systems are activated. Blood is redirected from extremities into large muscles in your body. Cold hands, cold feet. Digestion stops as a rather unnecessary task which only slows you down. Pulse rate becomes fast, heart rate accelerates, breath rate becomes quicker. All these thanks to the sympathetic branch of our autonomic nervous system. Fight and flight alert!!! We can run faster, jump higher, fight on adrenaline.


But wait... it is not a snake, not a mouse, not even a spider… Not a burglar trying to sneak into your house to steal your valuable possessions… It takes around 40 milliseconds for your prefrontal cortex to let your amygdala know. False alarm! False alarm! Everything back to normal. Relax! Digestion re-starts. Pulse rate, heart rate and breath rate all slow down. The parasympathetic branch of your nervous system takes over. When at its most extreme, your body can even feel limp and foggy under the rules of the parasympathetic nervous system. The trick known to animals – freeze or die. If limp and floppy, mimicking dead animals, you may not be attractive to the attacker (predator).


Yet, we may not pay much attention to our bodies. We may even claim that we are not anxious, when in fact we are. It is not uncommon for people to only notice how tense they were once they notice how relaxed they have become! Some of my clients told me that they feel hungry after relaxation; that they want to start to move and exercise!


What can we do to be better skilled at anxiety spotting? Well, it is not much different from spotting anything else… Clouds in the sky, birds in the bush, your neighbour moving his car, your spouse leaving dirty socks next to the bed …


If you spot your own anxiety and attend to it with all the care and compassion you have, you might notice that:


1. You are in fact more anxious than you think you are.


2. Your anxiety, experienced as physical sensations in your body, tells you that you might have some strong feelings about a particular situation.


3.  Once you regulate your anxiety, your (unconscious) feelings may come to the fore, but that is a story for another post…