It’s useful to keep in mind that anxiety is driven by a reciprocal feedback loop between the body and the mind.
What that means is, anxiety can be generated from both what you think and what happens in your body— and when one generates anxiety, it’s often picked up on and amplified by the other.
We know, very well, how our thoughts can cause anxiety. Most cognitive behavioral treatments for anxiety focus on the role distorted thoughts play in creating emotional states. It’s very common that when we think in overgeneralized, catastrophized, black and white terms, anxiety will be the result.
(I mean, it’s tough to NOT be anxious when we’re thinking things like, “this thing is horrible, which means everything is horrible and nothing exist BUT the horribleness.”)
Most of us also know, very well, how when we think anxiety-generating thoughts, how that tends to activate our bodies. Our hearts start beating faster. Maybe we sweat. Maybe our hands tremble. Our breathing gets shallow.
That is, all of the physical symptoms we associate with anxiety tend to follow closely on the heels of an anxiety spin getting started in our heads.
But what many of us don’t usually appreciate is how frequently this process works going the other direction as well.
What I mean by that is, just like the mind can send anxiety coursing through the body, the body can also fire up anxiety in the mind.
One of the primary functions of our big, evolved brains is to understand the world, both outside and inside of our skin. We see something, it’s our brains job to figure out what we’re looking at. We smell something, our brain has to figure out if it’s dinner on the grill or if the house is burning down. We feel a draft, and it’s the brain’s job to figure out if a door’s open or if the air conditioning kicked on.
An important ongoing task of this meaning-making brain of ours is to notice and interpret signals from our body— particularly signals that something is amiss. And when we experience the physiological symptoms of anxiety, it definitely feels like something is amiss.
The thing is, our brains sometimes don’t, actually, know what exactly is going on…so they kind of fake it. They make up a story. They generate hypotheses.
So for example, if our heart starts pounding, if we start sweating, if our hands start shaking, if our mouth goes dry…it’s very common for our brains to be like, “Wooooaaahhh, these are anxiety symptoms…what are we to make of this? Is there something to be anxious about here?”
And, our brains will go searching for things to explain the anxiety symptoms. That is, they will seek until they FIND something for you to be anxious about— because our brain considers it a top priority, as a matter of survival, to have SOME explanation for what is happening to our bodies, rather than none.
So thoughts can generate anxiety in the body, and the body can generate anxiety in the mind— and when the mind is anxious, the body tends to get anxious, and when the body experiences anxiety symptoms, the mind tends to follow suit. It becomes a self-reinforcing feedback loop that pings back and forth, back and forth.
Until, that is, it’s interrupted.
Which is the essence of both psychotherapeutic and medicinal treatment of anxiety— finding an effective point in the loop to halt that pattern in its tracks.
Medication and some types of psychotherapy interventions seek to interrupt the pattern on the physical side of things.
Medication, relaxation training, and breathing exercises can do things like slow down that pounding heart and relax those tensing muscles. As your body loosens up, your brain slows down its quest to find things to be anxious about. This literally gives you time to breathe, so you have the opportunity to constructively direct your brain’s activity, rather than being dragged along in its wild ride.
Therapy largely approaches the issue from the cognitive, or thinking, side of the equation.
Therapy interrupts the loop at the point of the thoughts, beliefs, and self-statements that are fueling the body reactions. As you learn to talk to yourself in a more realistic, productive way, and drag your thoughts away from the panicky distortions of anxiety, your body will often respond by letting its guard down. Therapy can teach you to send the “stand down” signal to your body before you wind up in a panic attack or act out to try to take some of the pressure off.
What’s the take home message of all of this? It is simply this: don’t get sucked into trying to figure out whether anxiety lives in the body or the mind. It’s both, and they goad each other. It’s a dynamic system, not a one way street.
Taming anxiety is all about interrupting the loop. You can interrupt at multiple points in multiple ways— but in the end it’s about scratching that record so it doesn’t play the same way anymore, either forward OR backwards.
As usual, my core message to you is: focus on the pattern.
We change as we change our patterns— not just our individual behaviors.