While the strategies in the previous post are ways to regulate in-the-moment when we pop into anxiety and the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system), in order to prevent these situations from continuing to happen we can make larger shifts in our lives. Whenever making changes to our lives, it is important to take small steps changing one thing at a time so as not to overwhelm ourselves and inadvertently sabotage our efforts. By shifting things slowly over time we can build on our successes. You may or may not being doing some or all of these things already. Perhaps consider adding one or part of one slowly over time.
We all have experienced anxiety at one time or another, whether preparing for a test, prior to a presentation at work, or on our first day of a new experience. We may feel a keyed up sensation in our body, our heart may race, our breathing may be short, and our thoughts may run quickly through our minds. When we experience anxiety, our autonomic nervous system has most likely picked up on a potentially dangerous situation and is letting off of the vagal brake (see previous two blog posts for details on what this means) to prepare us to fight or flee if necessary. Thus, inherently, anxiety is not a bad thing; it is our body and brain’s way of alerting us to pay attention. Anxiety becomes pathological, in other words a diagnosable condition, when it becomes a regular occurrence, interferes with our functioning, and we meet certain other symptom criteria. Essentially, when our anxiety is out of control and is no longer helping us it can be helpful to try some skills to address it.
In helping people with their anxiety, I see two main ways to target it: (1) Short term distress tolerance strategies to help with anxiety in the moment (what some experience as anxiety attacks and others as panic attacks), (2) Shifting ones lifestyle to create more safe-enough spaces for regulation and health.
This is an exciting time in the fields of mental health and neuroscience. We are beginning to better understand how the brain and the body work with greater refinement as technology evolves. Through Stephen Porges’ work with the vagus nerve, we have a greater understanding of how our bodies respond to our world automatically, outside of conscious awareness - that is, from our autonomic nervous system which involves the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
The Vagus Nerve - A Brief Overview
The vagus nerve is the tenth cranial nerve and is responsible for a number functions in the body. In terms of how we interact with our world, the vagus nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes referred to as “the relaxation response”. We now know that there are actually two parts to the parasympathetic nervous system. One helps us engage socially in a relaxed manner and the other shuts down our system to protect us in the event of perceived life threatening danger.