Components of Anxiety: What’s our pace in lockdown
Lockdown in a metropolitan city provided us with a unique opportunity to experience a different pace of life. Although this certainly hasn’t been a gift-wrapped opportunity the slowing down of a bee-hive like London has come with some unprecedented bonuses.
Keeping anxiety as the lens, there have been two main external changes, the decrease of socialising and the decrease of environmental stimulation in our daily lives.
Both of these have been associated with negatively impacting consequences like loneliness and boredom, but there is a flip side to consider.
Before we look at that and any practical implications, let’s have a brief and very simplified look at the structure and functions of our brain and how anxiety connects to them.
Our brain is made up of 3 main parts – the neo-cortex or our “top” brain which is where our thinking and conscious processing happens, the limbic or our mammalian “middle” brain where social and environmental out of awareness coding takes place and the brain stem or our reptilian “bottom” brain where our most basic and instinctive reactions originate. Without going into detail, it’s important to mention that the Fight and Flight responses (although we really ought to call them reactions) come from the “middle” brain and the freeze comes from the “bottom” brain.
So where does anxiety come in? Anxiety is connected to our “top” and “middle” brain. It can be divided into 3 components – body, thinking and interactions with others. The thinking part of our anxiety lives in the top brain and is the only part we feel we have conscious control over. The physical and social parts belong to the middle brain and very much feel automatic and almost like they happen to us.
To bring it back to lockdown, let’s imagine the following.
Our body hasn’t rested for many months, it has been under constant environmental and social stimuli “attack” and therefore it’s been firing up all sorts of signals to our middle brain in order to maintain alertness and engagement. Suddenly these stimuli are significantly reduced. It takes a little while but the body starts to adapt to the decreased level of stimulation and eases into a more restful mode.
The slowing down of the city and having less things to do and social activities to take part in has basically given us the opportunity to go into this rest mode and have a “tension” detox. But anxiety can and has prevented some of us from using this opportunity.
Here is how. With the social and body components of anxiety “disarmed” the 3rd, thinking component, comes in. While our body is still in that “attack” mode, our top brain makes sense of how we feel, it does that by creating meaning through thoughts. As our body starts to ease out of the “attack” mode our thinking either follows suit or it continues meaning-making as if the body needs to be alert and engaged – there’s a lag and mismatch – anxiety. Now, our thinking is stimulating the same parts of the middle brain that outside sources normally do and instead of allowing the rest and all the benefits of it to kick in, our thinking is “inducing” the same tension as if we are still in the faster pace lifestyle.
To summarise the lockdown has given us a chance to rest and anxiety is in the way.
After understanding the how a little bit more, next comes the what.
So, what can we do about it?
· We can find an outlet to constructively channel the energy our thinking brain is summoning.
· We can engage our social brain along with the energy outlet.
· And we can challenge the meaning our thinking brain is making.
Something that combines all of the above is the walk and talk experience. Whether it is done with a therapist or with a friend or family member, even over the phone while walking alone, it addresses each component of anxiety in a differently intentioned way. And that’s where change starts.
The body – we use up the energy, that would alternatively transform into tension, for the walking.
The social interactions – we use up the energy, that keeps us alert in public and wider social situations, to engage and co-regulate by focusing on the closer more nurturing contact we are having.
The thinking – we use up the energy and momentum of the thoughts and re-direct them towards the immediate interactions and activities we are in, including by sharing our thoughts with the person we are engaging with.
So whether we walk and talk on the phone with a friend, in person with a family member or loved one or with a therapist, by doing this we give our system a chance to enjoy the slowing down of our city and re-fuel the resilience tank.
And don’t we just need it!