The Anxiety Epidemic (and how to tackle it)

What if we’ve been treating anxiety as a mental condition for all these years, only to discover it’s actually an issue with how the body talks to the brain - via what is called the vagal nerve.

Anxiety is the most common mental illness, affecting 300 million people worldwide. Symptoms include worrying, ruminating and obsessing & panic attacks. The smallest doubt can activate a red flag in the brain, overriding all logic. Untreated, it can develop into OCD and depression.

Traditional therapies like Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) focus on changing unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that contribute to, and feed, anxiety.

However, these require people to use their brain and will to overcome a highly limbic – body dominant – state.

It actually turns out that the body informs the mind. Advances in neuroscience indicate just how beholden we are to our body for our mental wellbeing.

Our body goes into flight/fight long before we consciously know about it. 80% of our sensory information is assessed in the gut. Signals of danger are sent from the gut, via the vagus nerve and spinal cord, to the brain.

Once alerted, the flight/fight centre in the brain (amygdala) is in charge and it inhibits access to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, that controls our executive functioning: future and strategic planning, will to live, higher cognition & complex language abilities. In flight/fight the amygdalae literally grow bigger than the prefrontal cortex.

Now the body is in control. We are in a limbic loop. Our vestibular system - balance, posture, sense of self - is oriented to danger. This then affects our social engagement system: eyes, ears, face, voice, feelings, & swallowing. When in flight/fight our heart, lungs, kidneys and digestion are also affected. We have little connection to our prefrontal cortex and are bombarded by images of danger from a helpful amygdala which is only doing its best to keep us safe.

In this heightened state we are not producing sufficient myelin, serotonin or dopamine; our immune system is compromised; vitamin b12 is not being absorbed; we are not making vitamin D - because all these things are made in the gut and the kidneys - and when we are stuck in flight/fight our digestion system is seized and kidneys (adrenals) are in overdrive. All these things - essential to our mental wellbeing – are only made when we are in a restorative state.

The longer this lasts the less resilient we become and the more prone we are to anxiety

Breathing techniques and mindfulness are really difficult for a lot of people as a way of staving off this overwhelming condition.

Showing anxious people how to work directly to calm the body is much more efficient. When you learn how to be in a calm state and how your eyes, ears, face, voice and thinking can come back ‘on line’, you feel like yourself again.

The goal is to improve vagal tone (the health of the vagus nerve) and make you more resilient to stress. The vagus nerve literally takes you into either a flight/fight state or a parasympathetic (calm) state. It responds to your need for safety.

The take-away is that anxiety is a primal response, in the same way that freezing or playing dead when confronted by a tiger is. When your body is in that state, no amount of psychotherapy is going to stop you being eaten, An understanding of this may be the key to calmness.