“In trouble, to be troubled, is to have your trouble doubled.”
Daniel Defoe, The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.
Anxiety is something that we will all experience in our lifetimes. It’s Mental Health Awareness Week all this week: it’s also the start of GCSE exams in England. My daughter at breakfast yesterday morning was exhibiting signs of anxiety – quiet, withdrawn, not her usual bubbly self – clearly worried about the exams she will be sitting this week. Her raised heart rate, bringing more oxygen and glucose to her brain, will no doubt serve her well for the 90 minutes of her exam this morning. It’s the long-term implications of anxiety that we need to watch out for.
When stressed, areas of the brain that collectively are called the limbic system take charge of managing your response to perceived threats (such as a wild animal, a burglar in your house in the small hours, or an exam paper with difficult questions that you think you cannot answer). The limbic brain starts a series of events in your body to help you deal with the stressor by fighting it, running away from it, or standing still and hoping it will all go away (flight, flight, freeze). A hormone called cortisol is released into the bloodstream. Its purpose is to speed up how quickly energy resources in your cells is made available as glucose for your brain and muscles to use.
One of the side-effects of cortisol is that it impairs the functioning of the parts of your brain where your most logical thinking and planning takes place (in your prefrontal cortex). Your ability to think clearly and straight about the challenges you see before you is impaired the moment that you begin to become anxious. Your learning about the situations you face becomes limited when you are already in a stressed frame of mind.
Managing your anxiety requires thinking about your perceptions and reframing them into something that is more manageable and factual, and creating plans – ‘options’ – for how to respond to challenges the next time. To do that, you need to engage your logical-thinking brain (prefrontal cortex), which means you need to be calm in the mind. This reflective practice needs to take place when things are calm for you.
Take a moment away from things. Take a step back and observe. Take a break. Get some space. And make hay while the sun is shining.
In the next post, we’ll look at techniques you can use ‘right now’ to manage the feelings and sensations when anxious.