Anxiety is pretty common-nearly everyone has experienced anxiety at some point in their lives. Recent statistics find that 18.1% of the population of the United States of America is impacted by anxiety every year. Anxiety is treatable, yet the Anxiety & Depression Association of America found that only 36.9% of those suffering from anxiety receive treatment. Occasional anxiety can be triggered by stress but usually does not last for long after the event ends. Normally, this type of anxiety is not debilitating or disruptive to our functioning. Anxiety that persists over time or over various situations more often than not it has its roots somewhere else and is usually triggered by current day stressors.
Where do I start?
The key to managing anxiety is to tackle the smaller bits first and once they are manageable and we are in a better space we can work up to the bigger bits. Unfortunately we cannot totally eliminate anxiety-but we can lessen the power it has over us and take back control. Anxiety is kind of like the ocean, it can come in waves. What we can do in therapy is equip ourselves with coping strategies in order to surf those waves rather than get pulled under.
Fight or flight response
Let’s talk a little bit about the amygdala. The amygdala is part of the brain’s limbic system and is located deep within the brain’s temporal lobe. The amygdala is basically the emotional center or powerhouse of the brain. The amygdala operates kind of like an emotional interpreter or manager. It takes in things that we see and hear and sends messages to different parts of the brain (ie hippocampus) about these things. It’s also responsible for assigning value to the sights and sounds (ie emotion). So, for example if we are on a walk and spot a grizzly bear on the path our amygdala will send a message to the hippocampus that there is a threat ahead-the value assigned would be fear. The amygdala is also responsible for triggering what is called the “fight or flight response”.
When we experience anxiety it affects all parts of our body. For example, if we take our dog out for a walk and spot a coyote we may think “The coyote will kill my dog”. Our body will react: perhaps our pupils will dilate, our heart will may start beating faster or our body may tense up. Our body is physically preparing for action-to run. This is our body’s naturally designed response to a perceived threat. Occasional anxiety is a trigger of sorts for our body to ready itself for a perceived threat. This is called the “fight or flight response”. Using the coyote example, our brain identifies what it perceives to be a threat and signals our sympathetic nervous system to release hormones to prep our body to fight the perceived threat. The sympathetic nervous system is like the gas pedal on a car-similar to how the accelerator pedal gets the car to move quickly, the sympathetic nervous system works to give our body a quick burst of energy to escape a dangerous or life-threatening situation.
Sometimes though the amygdala overreacts. People who have experienced trauma, chronic stress or even anxiety disorders can have an amygdala that reacts more strongly than the amygdala of others. Because these individuals have experienced either extreme stress or stress consistently the amygdala becomes overly sensitive to these events and overstimulated. It can then respond by interpreting everyday events as overly threatening.
Change your thoughts, change your experience
We’ve got this great system in our bodies on standby to get us out of scary situations. But the difficulty comes when our brains start interpreting non-life-threatening situations as threats when they are really just stressful events and not life or death situations. So how do we take our foot off the accelerator in the situations? We change our thoughts. Our thoughts, feelings and actions (TFA) are interdependent and build upon each other. If we can change the initial thought that creates the subsequent feeling that leads us to act a specific way then we’ve essentially taken our foot off the gas pedal. Much like a ladder, if we remove one rung we are unable to ascend.
Therapy can help explore those times we experience overwhelming anxiety by systematically reflecting on what happened immediately preceding the anxiety attack and examining the subsequent thought patterns. Thinking about how those thoughts made us feel and what we did in response to those emotions; describing the actions we took (or did not take) and drilling down into the specifics of each can help us start to challenge those patterns.
Interrupting the cycle
Tapping works to calm the activity of the amygdala. Similar to acupressure, the physical tapping sends electrical signals to the acupressure points (or meridian points) to interrupt or release the energy held there. It also works to interrupt that pairing or value assignment associated with the visual or auditory event. By interrupting this pairing it can interrupt the pairing of negative beliefs which then lead to anxiety and or stress.
Studies have demonstrated that it can reduce cortisol. The basic Tapping technique requires us to focus on a negative emotion at hand. While maintaining our mental focus on this issue, we use your fingertips to tap 5-7 times on 9 specific meridian points of the body. Tapping on meridian points sends a calming signal to the brain, letting it know it’s safe to relax. Tapping on these meridian points while focusing on what is stress helps the mind understand that we are not in any physical danger and it is safe to relax, reducing cortisol levels.
The steps are:
1) Identify the problem. It can be general anxiety, or it can be a specific situation or issue which causes us to feel anxious.
2) Consider the problem or situation. How do we feel about it right now? Rate the level of anxiety on a scale of 0 to 10, with zero being the lowest level of anxiety and ten being the highest.
3) Compose a setup statement. A setup statement should acknowledge the problem, followed by a phrase of acceptance. This helps neutralize judgements around how we feel. Some setup examples include: even though I feel this anxiety, I accept how I feel; or even though I’m anxious about my interview, I accept myself and how I feel.
With four fingers on one hand, begin tapping the Karate Chop point on your other hand. The Karate Chop point is on the outer edge of the hand, on the opposite side from the thumb.
4) Repeat the setup statement three times aloud, while simultaneously tapping the Karate Chop point. Now take a deep breath.
5) Next, tap about 5 to 7 times each on the remaining eight points in the sequence described below. As we tap on each point, repeat a simple reminder phrase, such as “my anxiety” or “my interview” or “my financial situation” to help mentally focus on the issue.