Anxiety is an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behavior … It is the subjectively unpleasant feelings of dread over something unlikely to happen, such as the feeling of imminent death. Anxiety is not the same as fear, which is a response to a real or perceived immediate threat; whereas anxiety is the expectation of future threat. Anxiety is a feeling of fear, worry, and uneasiness, usually generalized and unfocused as an overreaction to a situation that is only subjectively seen as menacing. It is often accompanied by muscular tension, restlessness, fatigue, and problems in concentration. Anxiety can be appropriate, but when it is too much and continues too long, the individual may suffer from an anxiety disorder. ~ Wikipedia entry for ‘Anxiety’
Our bodies are amazing. I’ve said it before and will say it again. It has an incredible capacity to cope, change and adapt so that we mere humans can survive and thrive. But occasionally it can’t get it wrong. Remember the last time you had a nightmare? The one where you woke up with your heart pounding, perhaps sweating slightly, and took a while to calm down despite the fact it was “only a dream”? Your brain might have realised the difference when awake but your body did what it had to do to make sure you were safe.
Our body’s warning system is highly complex but with my love of analogies I will simplify this down to being either on ‘ALERT’ or ‘RESET’. Now even my grasp of GCSE biology at school included a basic understanding of these two states, and most people are familiar with the phrase ‘fight or flight’ (the ALERT mode). The less commonly talked about mode is what I refer to as RESET – which might also be called ‘rest and digest’ or ‘feed and breed’. As with all bodily functions, there’s a world more to it that this, but you get my drift.
The body makes a huge number of physical changes for each of these ‘states’, which are controlled by chemical messengers mostly known as hormones. We are all familiar with that rush at our initial reaction to something, whether it be a lion outside our cave, a car swerving in front of us, catching yourself just before you fall, or jumping off a diving board. Adrenaline (or epinephrine as it is technically known!) is a hormone and neurotransmitter that kicks off the whole ALERT reaction, and is what helps us fight or flee from the source of our reaction – the lion, the near accident etc.
But where the body is super efficient, our super computer brain hasn’t yet developed to be able to communicate the difference between real and non-real, which is why you wake up sweating and breathless when in your nightmare you were being chased by a hungry lion. Your body put you on ALERT in response to the dream world imaginings of your subconscious.
Nightmares provide a very good distinction between fear and anxiety. Both of these are normal emotional responses, and part of a healthy spectrum of emotions. But as with most things, there are extremes which aren’t quite so great. Sometimes we experience anxiety in relation to an anticipated or expected situation or outcome, at other times we become anxious for no ‘logical’ reason. Most of the time, fear comes and passes fairly swiftly, but the problem with anxiety really comes about because it can linger – nagging at the back of your conscious which makes it very difficult to actually switch off and relax. The fear your body reacts to in a nightmare is easily quelled in your mind upon waking and realising that it was only a dream and the lion isn’t real. However the anxiety about that impending event or potential incident can’t be quelled so easily.
Long term anxiety puts your body into the state of ALERT and keeps it there, ensuring your senses are on the look out for danger to ensure that you won’t miss any potential threat. Again, a great biological adaption – you might need to remain in that state for a sustained period of time whilst you fight for your life or run like hell depending on the circumstances of the threat. But once that threat is over, the hormonal system is meant to trip back into RESET. Only with long term chronic anxiety related symptoms the ALERT hormones just keep pumping and producing. Your brain won’t let you miss a thing, which is perfect if there really might be a lion in your neck of the woods. Otherwise, this just plain sucks.
So, we’ve all heard that stress can be good for us, in the right levels, beyond which it just ‘gets in the way’. Once you tip over the level of optimum stress for you and you hit the ‘fatigue’ stage, you know it’s time to slow down otherwise you’ll be into overload – that cold which takes 4 months to shift, the inability to sleep despite being seriously exhausted and trying to count sheep whilst lying in a bath full of lavender oil and trying to figure out the last time you actually had an undisturbed night. Now this isn’t disastrous, but can lead to exhaustion which, left unchecked can lead into a state of burn-out, where in lies the deep seated issues of anxiety, panic, despair, fear. All of these emotions and reactions are perfectly normal and healthy in moderation, but when you can’t see the wood for the trees, when your body is drowning in stress hormones, the over stimulation can cause havoc for your body and your mind, yet your body now believes that this ALERT state is your ‘new normal’.
So perhaps the obviously thing to do is you are SERIOUSLY stressed out is just to have a massage?
Ever had one too many cups of coffee and then tried to sit still? Impossible, right?! Well, this will give you an idea about how it must feel for someone who is struggling with anxiety and stress to come into a room, get undressed, lie still, usually on their tummy so they can’t see what’s going on and trying to be silent for an hour (or more) in order to relax! Far from easy, even if they have had massage before, even been to this practitioner before. The situation for someone with these symptoms can be easily handled to ensure it doesn’t cause more anxiety at each and every stage.
Typically I find individuals who are struggling with some form of stress overload, be it anxiety, panic attacks, depression or the like, will have tried to speak to me before making an appointment. This helps them get a sense of my voice and gives them the opportunity to ask any obvious questions they would like answered without the ‘confrontation’ of a face to face conversation (what should I wear, how undressed will I have to get). However, this isn’t always the case which is why I diligently read each new client information form with care, perhaps a medication is mentioned or maybe they feel they can be open in their responses on the form because they don’t need to see my reaction. Something I try to ensure each new client understands is the importance of being as honest as they feel they can whilst only revealing as much information as they feel safe to share and which I might need to know, so that I really can tailor my work to their needs.
If someone has got incredibly tight shoulders but is suffering from panic attacks, recognizing the importance of dealing with both these elements is vital to the effectiveness of both issues. There is no point in working really deep on these shoulders because that will merely reinforce to the client’s brain that there is a threat of physical danger. Asking them to lie face down will mean their brain works incredibly hard to keep the other senses as alert to threats as possible. So being able to fully understand each individual’s circumstances, symptoms and experiences ensure that their needs are met, physically, mentally and emotionally. It might be as simple as asking them to lie on their backs, and nattering as we work gently – but the magic is that in most instances, their eyes will close at some point, and there will be that magical sign. RESET.
With a body on ALERT, constantly perceiving itself to be at risk of attack at any moment, the sensation of allowing oneself to drift off can result in a heightened jolt back as the brain re-engages and looks for any attack of threat that was missed in it’s absence. Remember the coffee analogy? But if the brain can even temporarily revert to RESET, remembering another way of being can provide precious respite to the client.
Our body is a bath with a finite capacity for managing stress hormone levels. Now imagine being in ALERT with the plug in for a long time with the taps pouring more stress hormones into your system. Pretty soon you have a fairly full bath. Luckily baths have an overflow pipe which do reduce the threat of a wet bathroom floor, but if the taps keep running at a rate greater than the overflow pipe can cope, at some point you’ll still have to get out a mop. Our overflow pipe isn’t really needed when we have a good balance between ALERT (plug in) and RESET (plug out), but when on constant ALERT, it is suddenly vital. Chances are that the taps are pouring fairly fast, so by finding things that temporarily remove the plug long enough for a sizeable flow of water to pour out before the plug is sucked back into the hole, the pressure on the overflow pipe is reduced.
So, what else can help? On top of good and appropriate massage, one of my clients has found that adding exercise helped relieve just enough of the hormonal surge the ALERT state provides to give her some breathing room. Oh and we aren’t talking taking up marathons here, a daily 10 minute walk will be a great start. Other things I have heard ‘wonders’ about include meditation (also coming under the new ‘fad’ term of mindfulness – but do check out www.headspace.com), hypnotherapy, talking therapies (always under the caveat that you have to actually like and respect the person you are seeing), socialising with upbeat people, laughing, gratitude journals. The list is incredibly long, and includes things which some people will wince at, and others will leap at. The trick? Finding something that works for you.
Any stress-related disorder will be unique to that individual – yes there are common symptoms and common treatments, but as unique and the sufferer is, so will be the concoction of things to help RESET.