Did you know that your body has a "reset" button for anxiety?

by Katherine Bell, LPC

Anxiety.  To me, it’s always a “double-whammy”.  First, there’s the anxiety itself, which is bad enough. But on top of that, I feel the stigma of knowing that as a Christian I’m not supposed to be feeling it. (See my previous post for more.)

The “Fear Not!” commands are all over the Bible – in fact, no other command in Scripture is given more often. (God must really mean it!)

  • “… do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Matthew 6:34
  • “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God….”  Philippians 4:6-7

I don’t know about you, but these verses used to trigger a lot of guilt and shame on top of the anxiety I was already feeling. What’s wrong with me that I can’t just “turn off” my anxiety?  Am I a bad Christian? Why can’t I just “give it all to God” and be happy?

Now, I won’t pretend that I have this thing all figured out.  I won’t say I never have to… well… worry  about worry any more. I doubt I’ll be able to do that entirely this side of heaven.  But I have learned that when clinical anxiety hits, there are things I can actually do about it (besides “white-knuckle it” and question my own faith).

Trusting God is always a good thing (and sometimes it really is all you need). But clinical anxiety is not always a simple “lack of faith”. It is a physiological response to a real or imagined threat that is sometimes rooted so far in the past that you don’t even remember how it started. It even has a name—"fight-or-flight”.

And you can learn to turn it off. Or at least turn it down.

When your body goes into “fight-or-flight”, it is trying to protect you. And it really doesn’t matter if you’re just having an argument with a family member, or if someone has pulled a gun on you in a dark parking lot—it responds the same, predictable way:

  • Your brain floods with the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Your “emotional brain” overrides your “rational brain” so your life-saving reflexes can act quickly.
  • Your heart rate and blood pressure increase. You may even have chest pains.
  • Your breathing becomes faster and shallower. You consume more oxygen. You may even hyperventilate.
  • Your adrenal glands dump adrenaline into your bloodstream.
  • Your liver dumps its glucose reserves and your pancreas decreases insulin. This raises your blood glucose levels to give you a surge of energy (and if you don’t think high blood sugar can affect your behavior, just ask me about my diabetic child).
  • Your blood supply is diverted from less-urgently-needed systems to your muscles so you can run away or defend yourself. This slows or stops your digestion, sometimes causing indigestion or even nausea.

As uncomfortable as this full-body response feels, it is exactly as God designed it! It can literally save a life!  But if we don’t learn how to manage the stressors that trigger it, we can get “stuck” in a chronic fight-or-flight state. Over time, it can even depress the immune system and cause long-term health issues.

This is clinical anxiety.

So back to What can I do about it? I can’t just tell my heartrate to go back to normal. Well, as it turns out, you can.

Look at all the physiological responses listed above. Most of them are involuntary. You can’t consciously turn your insulin back up, or your cortisol back down. But you can control one thing—your breathing.

When you consciously begin to make yourself take slow, deep breaths, it’s kind of like entering “CTL-ALT-DELETE” in your central nervous system. Your brain starts to notice that you’re breathing slowly, as you would if you were in the “rest and digest” state. It notices the increased amounts of available oxygen.  And it suddenly realizes, “Oh! I must be safe now!”

So it sends out the “all clear” signal, and the body starts to gather up all that extra cortisol, adrenaline, glucose, and other stress chemicals and dump them into the bladder where they no longer affect you. It takes a minimum of 20 minutes to finish the job, but once it does... ta-da!—you’ve "turned down" or even “turned off” your anxiety....

...at least for now.  This breathing trick is a great tool to have on hand, but sometimes it is like an asthma inhaler. Albuterol is a life-saving rescue tool, but it won't cure your underlying problem. Anxiety can come from any area of our lives, and sometimes, it is rooted in events so far in the past that we don't even think to connect it.  Talking with a counselor can really help uncover the roots of your anxiety and help put you on the road to true healing (with God's help!). Call me today for your free 15-minute consultation, and find out if Connections is right for you!

So does all this mean that all you need is breathing techniques and someone to talk to? that the Bible is irrelevant today?  Absolutely not!  In my next post, I will give more specific details about how to use breathing to calm anxiety, and talk about how to combine it with soothing verses that will solidly bind this method to your faith!