Everything You Need to Know About Anxiety, Trauma, and Stress (kind of...)
Warning, this is a long read, but it will give you a very clear understanding of anxiety and stress.
There are three main sections of your brain, for the purposes of this discussion, which have very different jobs. The hind-brain (aka brain stem or reptilian brain) is responsible for survival. It keeps your lungs moving, heart pumping, blood flowing, and keeps you alive. Basically all the things you do that you are not really aware of and don’t have much control over. The mid-brain is mainly where your emotional response exists, with the limbic system, and the amygdala lives here as well. The amygdala is the fear center, or your fire alarm. It is always on the lookout for anything that could represent a threat and ready to trigger all hands on deck to fight, flight, or freeze. The fore-brain, or frontal lobe, is the most advanced part of the brain. This is where most of your logic, foresight, creativity, and other advanced abilities reside. Ever wonder why you make stupid decisions when you are drunk? Well, the frontal lobe is heavily impacted by alcohol, decreasing logic ability and foresight. So jumping off the roof into the kiddie pool seems like a great idea.
Let us focus on the middle and go from there. When the amygdala perceives a threat it sends a message throughout the brain and body to request all hands on deck! The fore-brain becomes put on the backburner, because you need to fight or flight (freeze discussed later), not figure out a plan or do math or paint a picture. There is a lion running at you, no time to think, just attack or run. So energy is focused on the mid-brain, the amygdala and related operations. There is now a lot happening in the mind and body. For the mind, the amygdala is defying all logic and screaming at everyone to RUN or FIGHT! The hippocampus, which usually files incoming memories, stops filing input from the senses and runs off to help trigger cortisol release and other emergency response systems.
So now your brain is picking up all the incoming messages from your senses and doesn’t know what to do without the hippocampus to help, so it just starts shoving all the incoming information anywhere with no order. This is why you may not have accurate or even any memory of a traumatic event. When you record memories in a calm body it is like a full puzzle made of pieces that represent sounds, smells, thoughts, sights, etc. The puzzle is constructed and the complete picture (memory) is filed autobiographically and chronologically in a memory "filing cabinet", so it makes sense with the rest of your memories. When you are in an anxious or traumatized body and mind, the pieces are in a pile and just get shoved anywhere by. So the trauma memory is buried in there somewhere, but all over the place. This is why sometimes those who experienced a trauma will remember bits and pieces and they may be out of order and confusing.
Meanwhile, we need to get the body all revved up. Remember the hippocampus guy that left his job? Well he went and helped to activate the release of cortisol, adrenaline, and a myriad of other chemicals into your blood system, which I call the anxiety cocktail. Cortisol prepares your body to deal with pain, among other things, so if the lion bites your arm you can fight through it to survive. The adrenaline speeds everything up so you can have maximum ability to fight or flight. The problem is, these chemicals tear apart your muscles and body, they are catabolic and are not meant to be in the system for extended periods of time. Remember that excellent film the Fast and the Furious (yes, being sarcastic), well all they had to do was hit the NOS and off they go, jumping that bridge in a realistic manner. But if they were to continue to blast nitrous oxide through the engine the engine would soon fail. It is the same with adrenaline and anxiety. Your body was only meant to handle short bursts in order to survive. That’s why people with chronic stress (a form of anxiety) have shorter life expectancy, have more health problems, and experience fatigue more often.
So why does all this crazy stuff happen when you are stressed or anxious? Well your body is preparing you for survival. We evolve in two ways, in theory. We evolve as animals and as social beings. Whenever we were created, by whatever means, we were given a fear response to survive. Survival is number one priority in our brain, it trumps emotion, logic, and desire. We also evolved as social creatures, and now we live in high rises with giant metal objects flying over our heads and all around us outside. There are loud noises everywhere, and we walk by hundreds of people we do not know that could do anything to us at any moment. So your simple fear system that was originally worried about lions, some random guy from a far off village, or bad weather is now overwhelmed by 100’s of threats a minute. The amygdala does not understand social evolution, unless taught and trained. So when left unregulated it fires of at everything: that plane could fall on me! That loud noise could kill me! That car could hit me! That stranger could stab me! Etc…. And if you have experienced trauma, the amygdala has been trained to look even harder, notice more triggers, and it can actually physically grow larger.
I digress…. So back to why the body freaks out. The heart rate increases to try and pump the blood faster to where needed. Also, the blood vessels constrict, due to one of the ingredients in our anxiety cocktail, so if the lion bites our arm off we don’t bleed out so fast. So the heart has to work harder to push the blood through a smaller tunnel system. Our breathing speeds up both because our heart rate increases and because the body is trying to pull in more oxygen to fuel our blood and muscles to fight or flight. Our muscles get tense and often ache later because they are preparing to use explosive energy. There are other things that happen, all with a specific purpose. Stomach issues are common because the digestive system is turned off, the energy is needed elsewhere. Ever wonder why someone pees or defecates themselves if frightened? The body is dropping dead wait, among other reasons. Erectile dysfunction is common in those chronically stressed, because the blood flow is redirected where needed. You sweat heavily because the body is trying to cool down from all the added heat from the heightened body response.
When your mind perceives it cannot fight off or run away from a threat, the freeze response can kick in. An extreme example of this is when considering someone who may have experienced sexual assault. Often these individuals may have limited to no memories of the assault and/or report “I just laid there, like I wasn’t even there” or "it felt like I left my body." This is called disassociation. The person is unable to fight the attacker off or run away, so they freeze. The brain tries to protect them by having them leave the moment, because it is so traumatic. Another example is like a deer in headlights. The deer sees the car coming, but it may stand there rather than jump out of the way. Of course, there are other influences happening in this example.
Finally, whether you see a lion or just believe there is a lion, you will respond the same. If you receive an eviction notice in the mail your body may respond the same as if you see a stray dog running at you foaming at the mouth. Our amygdala lives in the skull, which is a pitch dark place. It does not understand the difference between real and perceived threats, or lions and bills. If we feel socially in danger it responds with RUN! FIGHT! GIVE UP! So we have to train our brain to realize that not all threats mean our life is in danger anymore. The best way to do this is through educating yourself, like you just did, and managing anxiety, trauma, stress, etc. in the body. The mind and body are connected, so calm the body and the mind wants to follow. You have a nervous system that fluctuates from the sympathetic nervous system (anxious system) to the parasympathetic nervous system (calm system). It is a spectrum and you are constantly pulled back and forth on it all day. It involves the vagus nerve, which you can learn more about here.
So, if you are anxious, you calm the body to force it towards the parasympathetic nervous system and the body will calm, with the mind following. You don't ever have a calm mind and anxious body, or anxious body and calm mind, they follow one another. But my fingers are out of breath, so more on that in another post, which I will link here when complete. Please message me with ANY comments or questions. I even like constructive criticism. And please subscribe to get notified when I post new content.