I believe everyone at some point has found themselves in a situation where they’ve felt riddled with anxiety, and frozen with fear and worry. Perhaps it was the threat of violence and physical harm, or maybe having to speak in front of a large group of people. I’m sure you can relate to this, your heart starts racing and pounding in your chest, sweat beginning to leak from every pore, and you start breathing as though you’ve run a marathon in clogs. Your body starts trembling and shaking whilst standing on the spot, then comes the nauseating feeling not too dissimilar to being thrown around on a rollercoaster and the feeling of butterflies in your stomach kicks you in the gut like a cramp. Then you look for water, because your mouth is so dry you can’t get your words out.
These physical reactions to stress if left unchecked and combined with an anxious mindset, will escalate to levels far exceeding what you require to be able to function effectively in a stressful situation. Quickly reaching detrimental levels, causing you to behave like a chimp on hippy crack, this is your stress response spiralling out of control.
The physical sensations synonymous with feeling scared and anxious are the symptoms of your natural responses to worrying situations, but at the right time, the right place, and to the correct levels, they are in fact a most valuable, functional tool. Negative issues only arise when the response levels exceed what’s appropriate in relation to the stressor, as excessive levels can cause you to freeze when an immediate threat is about to physically harm you, like the person being attacked with a baseball bat who stands still and gets hit for a home run. Or another example is an excessive response to a situation, such as having anxiety about standing in front of an audience to speak, or maybe worrying about traveling to a new place. Many people are adept at keeping these feeling and responses to minimum levels, but for others, life feels as though there is a constant sound of an air raid siren in their head, with anxiety levels elevated so highly they find themselves set to a constant state of being on edge, or false alert.
An explanation of why your body responses and functions change under stress will positively and profoundly change how you feel about these sensations, and recognising them for their true purpose and functionality helps prevent you from perceiving them as negative. The heart will beat faster, and your breathing will become shallow and rapid, providing more oxygenated blood to the muscles to either escape or club something. Whilst the heart is beating faster and harder the coronary arteries will start to narrow, and this process is called vasoconstriction. The activation of vasoconstriction is to speed up the transmission of oxygenated blood and provide a safety net by minimising the chance of you bleeding to death if cut or bitten, because it helps stem the flow of blood from any wound. (It’s not uncommon for a person to survive being attacked with a knife but be unaware in the immediate aftermath they have been stabbed, due to the endorphin release acting as painkillers and vasoconstriction restricting blood loss.) If the stress level is high enough you may get rid of any unnecessary cargo, possibly voiding your bladder and bowels to become lighter on your feet to quickly run away from a threat, or to catch what you want to hit. Plus, you’ll make yourself smell pretty stinky to a mugger when you drop all of that in your pants. Without the medical advancements we have made in terms of IVF, all species needed to be able to reproduce to survive and so under attack, any testicles present in the conflict will withdraw up into the body for protection as an evolutionary reaction, highlighting why kicking to the nuts without proper commitment doesn’t achieve the desired result.
The butterflies in the stomach are caused by blood rushing from non-essential organs, combined with the feeling of hormones being released in the body. Digesting food or eating isn’t a priority when in a threatening situation, so saliva production stops and you will notice you have a dry mouth, making it easier for you to sink your teeth into the thing which is attacking you, but it’s important to note at this point I wouldn’t advise you to bite an attacker unless absolutely necessary, because you don’t know of any infectious diseases they may have. Your blood is being moved, pumped to the arms and legs ready to spring into action and if this fuel preparing the muscles isn’t being used to run away or bash something, then the body will begin to tremble and shake, so ensure you use this power early by doing something to burn it off.
Starting to sweat stops the system from overheating and gives the benefit of making you very slippery and hard to grab. Your pupils will dilate, letting in more light and increasing your peripheral vision, enhancing the type of vision needed in a conflict and for spotting an escape route. The hairs on the back of your neck will stand up and you will get goose bumps, which heightens awareness of air movement around you thereby elevating your sensitivity to attacks. Your brain’s neurotransmitter activity will increase to enhance alertness through hearing, vision, and other senses, but under extreme stress these will be dampened and become less efficient. You will produce natural painkillers, chemicals called Endogenous Opioids or Endorphins, working with the brain’s receptors to lessen, or completely shut out the recognition of pain, which is why you can’t bop someone on the nose and expect them to stop, because it may not hurt.
When deployed in the right way, the stress response gives you everything you need physically to perform to your maximum efficiency in life-or-death situations. The ability to run faster, react faster and hit harder are fantastically enhanced attributes made available to you in a fraction of a second. Yet people have been led to believe the bodily changes/sensations which go hand in hand with these abilities aren’t a good thing. Viewing these sensations and physical changes as a weakness, seeing themselves as a coward when experiencing any of these. It’s a false belief, and changing your view on this is of upmost importance to your life. I can’t emphasise this enough!
The bodily sensations and reactions to stress are your Limbic System and Brain Stem stepping up to the plate and winning Olympic gold in survival response performance. I believe if teachers and coaches would educate youngsters on this it would make a massive difference to many people’s lives. Think of a child who is about to speak to their peers at a school assembly or compete at a sports day or swimming gala trembling with nerves. If a teacher/coach, asked who felt nervous and then proceeded to explain to those experiencing these sensations why they have them, and the reasons behind these feelings, it would be invaluable to them. Not only for that occasion, but for their whole lives, it would result in children being aware that when feeling nervous they were primed to perform at their best. Knowing this, and feeling and acknowledging the inner strength they have, whilst learning to direct this energy at a young age would be incredibly positive and I think life changing. Helping them to grow and speak with confidence and passion in front of people, run faster in competitions, swim harder, and throw further, instead of letting them carry on in life without knowing why these bodily changes happen when scared or nervous and crippling them with a sense of weakness, vulnerability, and inadequacy, which leads to further anxiety. Changing the understanding and stigma around these feelings would change everything.
Imagine if you could re-live your life without the negative thoughts, emotions and feelings of weakness and vulnerability associated with having butterflies. Imagine not feeling inferior or incapable when you felt your heart race with nervousness. Think how much easier it would have been if you could have valued the physiological changes of your stress response for what they truly are, the body’s equivalent of a V8 engine roaring and ready to go, preparing you to perform at your best. This knowledge would have helped restrict irrational fear in your life, and limited the destructive seed of self-doubt and the negative physical and mental health implications it brings.
The great news is you’re alive, which means it’s not too late. You can work on changing your view about these body responses, reminding yourself when you feel nervous you aren’t weak and feeble and in fact, when you feel the shaking etc. you actually have too much power, power which is unused at that moment because you haven’t run or hit anything. You don’t need more strength or more courage, you need to learn to use the fuel you already have, or to mentally take your foot off the accelerator and prevent flooding the system, this will be explained in more detail as you proceed.
In situations where drastic psychological and physiological response aren’t needed, basically when you aren’t being attacked, knowledge of the stress response and confidence in yourself are key to improving your health by managing stress and lowering anxiety levels. Knowing why these physiological responses happen will change your whole perception of them, and adjusting how you view yourself and the situation you find yourself in will have a positive influence, because this alone helps to reduce any anxiety spiralling out of control. The confidence gained from learning how to protect yourself from a physical assault spreads through your life, weaving a self-assured web of calmness into all situations. You may feel a little nervous sometimes, but that’s not the same as anxiety.