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  • Deidre Ryan-Glass

The journey with anxiety- will there ever be light? Experiencing and living with anxiety

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

Anxiety can leave one feeling hopeless, in the dark and if over a sustained period of time, with a sense that the sun may never shine again. And yet the pervasive survival instinct in us still wants to carry on. Herein lies a great irony/paradox- the internal operating system we have to keep us safe, enabling us to survive, is the very same system that disables us, rendering us in a constant state of threat response and chronic anxiety, if left unchecked. How can this be? Are we given faulty equipment or are we using it all the wrong way? IS there a guidance manual?


SLowly with the help and advancement of neuroscience here in the west, we are finally getting to grips with what anxiety is and how we can manage it so that we can live our lives free of its debilitating symptoms.


Understanding the nervous system is key to overcoming the feeling of being short circuited and unable to cope. The nervous system acts like a light house on stormy seas, it alerts us to dangers that are real and prepares our bodily systems to respond in the best way possible to survive.


However in our modern lifestyles we are bombarded with unnatural processes and ways of living, often on top of having experienced some level of adversity or trauma along the way. Never fear, the ANS is here. That's right, your autonomic nervous system is like a super hero that will swoop in to provide you with the resources to run like crazy, stay and fight or freeze like a small child playing hide and seek, in the hope that you won't be caught while in plain sight. In some situations that are actually threatening, this may serve and it is natural for the Super hero to have his or her day. However, underlying trauma, unprocessed life events and adverse childhood experiences can all play a role in activating the threat response, even when there is no apparent threat. In this instance we move from a natural and beneficial stress response that is designed to get us out of harm's way into a sustained stress response with no "off" button. This becomes a chronic situation and life becomes a sea of choppy waters.


The nervous system is lined up, habituated and ready for any perceived threat. It has being doing so for years. Let's face it, the ANS is your buddy, just doing its super hero thing. Sadly for most people experiencing anxiety, this is not the case. The anxiety responses are not saving them, they are annihilating and most definitely don't feel like some kind of super hero helping to save the day. In simple terms, anxiety is no friend, even though, it's only doing its job, right? This is the very first stage to address.


Anxiety while deeply unpleasant and debilitating is not the enemy. What do we do to our enemies? We fight them or we at least defend ourselves against them. So too with our friend Anxiety that is telling us something is out of kilter. But what if it is possible to see Anxiety as a dear friend that just wants to protect us, okay I hear you- protect us to our detriment...to death...if this is the remedy/cure...I don't want to know about the cause. Hear me out. If instead of fearing it, fighting it, fleeing it, we turned around and faced it, would we not be in a better position to overcome it? This seems to be the piece that most people who suffer from anxiety don't know about. In responding to anxiety as a battle, the internal workings of the autonomic system line up in preparation for battle and wreak further havoc on the system. As if the panic attacks, feelings of overwhelm and pervasive negative feelings weren't enough, the body and mind now has a battle to fight in addition. There doesn't appear to be any possibility of a win! What if overcoming anxiety firstly requires us to befriend it? What if we were able to instead, see it as a signal from the light house that something needs our attention...


When I heard a client share over and over again about how they were fighting their anxiety, I asked, is that not just extremely tiring? What if instead of mounting a battle against it, you simply got to know it, ask it what it is trying to protect you from? ask why is it needing to raise the alarm? Wouldn't it be nice to have a breather from the fight? The client shared that they had never thought about it that way. And this was the beginning of holding a space of openness, understanding, self compassion and a doorway to figuring out why it is happening instead of inundating oneself with further tyranny and self condemnation, a truce is called on all fronts. There is an opening, the battle ships can disarm for a moment. It is in this moment, that one can begin to look at the mechanisms of anxiety that are causing chaos on the water. One can now enter the lighthouse and see what's happening from the inside. And maybe just maybe have a breather- the second bit....breathing...we'll get to that soon. Inside one discovers the control tower (our brain) has response systems, namely the emotional regulation systems- the threat system, the drive system and the soothing system.


Amongst many functions such as respiration, digestion, sensory integration, the autonomic nervous system is responsible for stimulation and relaxation. Over time, our brains can become hardwired and biased towards detecting threat and finding that superhero...even when the superhero should be having some time off! Depending on circumstances, our perceptions, the environment we are in, triggers, whether we are experiencing danger or excitement, where we are focusing our thoughts, our physical, mental and emotional state, the ANS can either activate its sympathetic branch or its parasympathetic branch. The sympathetic nervous system signals a stimulation response (fight/flight/freeze-think SOS state of emergency) while the parasympathetic nervous system signals a relaxation/inhibition response, signalling the mind and body to relax and turn off the stress response. It is an appropriate and integral part of our functioning. However, as long as the individual perceives threat, the sympathetic nervous system will be activated, releasing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Sustained over a long period these helpful friends can become a foe and begin to wreak havoc presenting in debilitating anxiety.


SO what are the solutions? How can Talk Therapy help? Talk therapy is a reflective process. There are many things happening in a counselling session that help bring resolution and build resilience. For one, the individual has made themselves a priority by seeking professional help and taking the time to reflect on their well being or lack thereof with a trained therapist. Already doing this, is an active step toward recovering a sense of well being and addressing on going issues. Securing space and time to examine difficult feelings, experiences, perceptions and figure out what is causing distress is essential in tackling anxiety. In safely untangling one's story or sharing current circumstances while experiencing positive regard, empathy and confidentiality, one can begin to reveal to themselves, their ways of being or perceiving and patterns of behaviour that are not serving them. It is a process of realisation, whether due to pain, crisis or emotional distress, one has finally stopped, taken stock and with the right therapist, realised their need for change.


Neuroscience reveals that person centred counselling, where one experiences being held in safety, non-judgement and total acceptance, changes the architecture of the anxious brain. The process of counselling creates awareness around drive and threat activation while encouraging the individual to engage the soothing system, promoting and valuing the individual's steps towards self compassion, self worth and self-care. As perception becomes clearer and solutions emerge, we dial down our threat activation and reduce or alleviate symptoms of anxiety. Being prompted towards this way of being over time, the brain literally re-wires and in doing so produces the neurotransmitters and hormones associated with relaxation, happiness and well being.

One of the greatest advances the individual can make is in realising that they matter and that Self Care is important for each of us to thrive. Seeking support and learning good, solid self care is the bedrock of kindness that is needed to address anxiety. But it does not stop there. Talk therapy is one of many avenues. And like many other conditions, anxiety needs to be addressed holistically.


Walk and Talk therapy combines all the benefits of traditional practice with the opportunity for device-free time in nature, a natural antidote for stress and anxiety. Once one has committed to the process of examining their emotional and mental well being there are other key areas and practical techniques to resolve anxiety in a self empowered way. Compassion focused practices like tapping (EFT), using positive framing (phrases and words), physical exercise, journaling, diet, breath work, movement meditation like yoga or qi gong and vertical neural integration are all accessible ways that can be incorporated to address the symptoms of anxiety and take back control of your happiness and your life! Will there ever be light? Yes, there will be!


https://mi-psych.com.au/your-brains-3-emotion-regulation-systems/ Your brain's 3 Emotion Regulation Systems (Mindfulness and Clinical psychology solutions)




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