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The neurophysiology of anxiety

Anxiety is created in the brain. Like everything else. As a fear based emotion/response it’s part of the sympathetic-parasympathetic system.

The fear response is holistic. (Brain-and-body). Adrenalin gets pumped around the body, and its brain equivalent epinephrine, in the brain.

The nervous system includes the brain, eyes, spinal cord, but also connects to the organs of the body: brain connects with the body, and the heart, gut, liver spleen all connect with the brain.

It’s a two-way street. The brain controls the body, but the body has a profound and concrete influence on the brain.

What is stress?

Stressors are the things that trigger anxiety. They can be mental or physical.

Stress is the psycho-physiological (mental-physical) response to stress.

We have a collection of neutrons or sympathetic chain ganglia (sympa = together). This starts at your neck and runs down to about the navel. So when something stresses you out, that chain becomes activated very fast. When this happens, the neurons release a brain-chemical called acetylcholine. It’s released in various sites across the body. It’s a chemical used to move muscles, and in the brain it’s involved in focus. After this chemical is released, some other neurons respond and release epinephrine – the equivalent to adrenaline.

Adrenaline acts in two ways: certain systems are activated, others are shut down. The movement system is activated. The leg and heart muscles (which need to be active) have receptors for this, and their blood vessels dilate. They get bigger so blood can rush to the legs and speed our heart rate.

Others, such as reproductive and digestive systems are switched off. The blood vessels contract. It’s why your throat gets dry under stress, the salivary glands are shut down.

These are all systems we want to pay attention to when we’re not under stress.

We gain a sense of agitation that makes you want to move in some way. Your stress response is telling you to do something. We’re more likely to say something we shouldn’t when we’re stressed for the same reason.

When we get too stressed, but can’t move, we move into a freeze state, which is one step further along the line. We can’t do anything, but the agitation is still running under the surface.

Anxiety, or stress, is a generalised system

Anxiety, or stress is a generalised system. It doesn’t distinguish between mental or physical stressor. It’s designed to activate and mobilise other systems in the nervous system. It’s not designed just for one thing. But it is generic, which allows it to take over the state of our brain-body. Which is a good thing. It gives us an advantage in controlling it. It means that there are solutions.

We have biological mechanisms (cells, chemicals, neural networks) that allow us to put a brake on the Stress system. We have both a stress system, and de-stress system within us. We’re born with them both. So if we’re human, we can learn to control our anxiety.

What can we do?

We need to work with the agitation. We need to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), our “rest and digest” system, designed for self-calming.

It’s the same for stage-anxiety. If you were walking on stage, how can you be present and calm, or alert (if that’s what you prefer) in the moment. Not worrying about failure, mistakes, or success.

How can you be more in charge?

The unpicking process: Fear

Part 1: Observation

We can start by noticing the patterns of our action and expression.

1) What are you doing when you’re anxious? How do you it?

Take fear for example- as children we learn to inhibit our response. We practice controlling fear in the face of others. Most of us work to control or hide weakness in the playground. We get an idea of what is needed and use our muscles to carry out the action.

For example:

If I’m scared, I might purse my lips a little to close my mouth, not to shout out. If I follow that into my mouth, I can feel that I push down the back of my tongue, and close my throat. This might lead to me fixing my neck and throat still, along with my sternum and the opposite area in my back. If I scan further down, I can feel that I compress my belly a little, and even tighten the other end of the tube that starts in my mouth, a subtle closing of the anus.

It’s detailed. In that detail is the opportunity to take the next steps.

Part 2: How do you stop doing it?

The organising process of our physical self helps here. All of our thinking and emotional processes, on a muscular level distill down to building and releasing tension.

We can think of ourselves as a giant accordion: with more or less ‘form” – a tighter or looser holding of ourselves. Let’s take the first part of my example.

I purse my lips when I’m fearful. (Substitute your own symptoms if that doesn’t resonate for you).

Notice how you feel physically, emotionally before you start:

  1. Tighten your lips a little, then purse the lips a tiny amount more. Again a tiny bit more tension, and then release it all. Pause for a moment, and breathe. Allow a few cycles of breath to pass.
  2. Tighten a smaller amount, and slowly release – see if you can release twice or three times more slowly. Repeat this a few times.
  3. Get more refined.
  4. Tighten one corner of the mouth, and release, slowly.
  5. Repeat, making the tightening smaller each time. Less each time. Do it so slowly your corner of mouth moving is miniscule.
  6. Repeat on the other side. Does it feel the same? Start it smaller, and release slowly each time.
  7. Stay with the changed sensation. Notice how it makes you feel. Stay in your moment quietly.

Work your way through your list of “symptoms”, or try the one above. If you have time, try them now. How do you feel at the end?

3) Using what you’ve learned: turning insight into action

Having an experience of a different state that we have created for ourselves gives us another option.

Which over time, helps us to learn to form new responses, which in turn gives us more choice of responding. And there’s always the choice to go back to the old way.

How could you practice this idea to use yourself differently? When could you slide a few minutes into your daily routine to make this a practice?

Knowing what you’re doing allows you to connect more accurately and pinpoint your symptoms, to work on improving your anxiety.

The Feldenkrais Method: Movement is a healer

As a Feldenkrais teacher, I teach resources based in the physical dimension. We work through Movement and Sensation, improving awareness and self-knowledge to improve the way we think and act.

Moshe Feldenkrais chose movement for his method because we all move. No matter age or ability. It’s a universal building block of learning. We learn organically in a physical way about the world in childhood. Before the addition of familial, societal or behavioural needs.

Everything, other than reflexes is learnt. Everything. We just have forgotten the process that got us there. If we know that we have learnt everything, including our patterns of anxiety, it’s logical that we can also learn something new. No matter how old we are.

One of my clients, in her 70s, came to work with me one-to-one because of her anxiety, which was affecting her choices and relationships. When life got too much, she’d stay in bed, and shut the world out. She wrote to me recently about our sessions together:

It’s been extraordinary how, through learning seemingly simple movements of the body and breath, I’m in a very different place. I could feel anxious, low and lacking in energy, but I now have physical ways to release unwanted responses to outside stimuli.

I also feel more confident and open in a wide range of relationships without fearing I will get hurt. I have even reconnected with my love of dance! All this through your teaching of physical movement, with inherent wisdom, openness to share, and gentle encouragement.

This is a repost from Emma's blog, The Moving Brain. Read more articles from Emma’s blog, The Moving Brain.

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Emma Alter

Emma Alter is both professional classical musician and Feldenkrais teacher. She brings a wealth of experience with her, understanding the pressures of standing in front of an audience and performing at the highest level, whatever the situation, complexities of playing an instrument, and how the body can get in the way of performing to our optimum. She has helped musicians with postural issues, restricted movement, chronic tension (including back pain and RSI ), or simply to find more efficient ways to play more easily.

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