Anxiety: The Fight or Flight of Your Life
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Anxiety is generally viewed as a problem with the mind, but everyone I know who suffers spends more time talking about and fearing the physical symptoms; shaking, sweating, heaving, fainting, and emptying the entire contents of your breakfast through the nearest exit. So why do modern therapies try to overcome the issue by fixing our thoughts? What if that doesn't work?
A hypnotherapist once tried to convince me that I couldn't move my hand due to the power of his mind. My hand was perfectly mobile. He later claimed I was in such a deep state of relaxation that I couldn't open my eyes if I wanted to. I opened my eyes immediately. It was awkward.
I wasn’t trying to be difficult, but truthfully, the worst thing I could hear while trying to relax is that my eyelids are paralysed. Needless to say, I proceeded to do what any decent Brit would do in that situation; faked compliance for an hour and then thanked him for a great experience.
I've always known hypnotism isn't for me. I only entertained this session because it was free in return for some consultancy and the opportunity arose during a time when I was desperate.
In 2017, I could no longer drive on the same fast roads I'd driven on countless times before. I could no longer board trains and planes, handle crowds, speak in front of an audience or visit cities. Even driving to the other side of my hometown to my favourite park was a problem. I was living in a constant state of anxiety; a daily battle with an inner dialogue that had formed inside my head; I'm not ok. I don't think I can do this. But I want to do this. Stop being a twat, I've done this a million times before! And these were just my thoughts.
My body, the same one I'd enjoyed for years with confidence and strength at my fingertips, was now working against me. Adrenalin became an enemy that would randomly flood my system, reducing me to a trembling, nauseous wreck, and flushing out all ability to stay calm in situations I once enjoyed. I started to ring-fence myself from things that might trigger these reactions, creating a cocktail of frustration, guilt and pressure. I had never experienced an adverse reaction to life before and I was terrified of being stuck this way forever.
The concept of anxiety was not a complete stranger to me. I’d had an unorthodox childhood; multiple house moves, school changes, different stepdads and an anxious mother meant that by the time I was at boarding school I was somewhat delicate. But after a period of trauma when my mother died, I embarked on my own adult life and found my feet.
By 22 I was thriving. I was living alone, working and completing my second year at uni. I travelled everywhere and hung out with people I'd met the same day. I could talk to anyone, dance on stage and nail job interviews. I started a new relationship and began to experience the rest of the world, jet-setting across Europe, Asia and Africa. I flew with colleagues, took city breaks and went to countless concerts and festivals where I'd be sandwiched amongst thousands of strangers. It was a lovely, stress-free time.
This is who I thought I'd always be. Resilient, free and unstoppable. But a second wave of trauma and an abnormally prolonged period of stress lay in wait that changed everything. Over the course of a difficult relationship, stress was putting my adrenal gland on overdrive. Tension formed in all areas and soon I was experiencing symptoms of anxiety during every part of life; shopping, driving, going to the cinema, anything away from home.
Eventually, I could no longer face flying and my love for travel was brought to its knees. I developed jaw problems due to night clenching and had physiotherapy because my trapezoids seized up. As my home life collapsed like a house of cards, I grew weaker and more restricted by the day, always fearing - what if I have a panic attack? And this is where my thoughts were failing me.
I can literally count on one hand the amount of times I've ever experienced a full physical panic attack and fainted, and those moments had nothing to do with crowds, confined spaces or anxious thoughts. Instead, they were physical accidents, like breaking a bone, causing an adrenalin serge which can commonly lead to tunnel vision and blackouts.
So why was my body and brain now associating normal every day activities with trauma, and to such degree that I was reacting to these activities with physical fight-or-flight symptoms? While I didn't have a solution at the time, it broke my heart to have lost my confidence and freedom.
I didn't want the battle. I didn't want to be someone who could say, I suffer from anxiety, I might not be able to do this - but I'll try. I didn't want to try to enjoy life, I just longed to live it and return to that state where anxiety wasn't even in my peripheral vision. So I started to seek help.
Turns out, the therapy industry is an actual sea of vastly unregulated shit you have to swim through in order to find a treatment and therapist that works for you. There's Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing (EMDR), Hypnotherapy and a whole host of similar options under the 'talk therapy' umbrella; each letting you talk through your issues, using varying visualisation techniques in the hope to rewire your brain through the power of thought and memory.
I pretty much tried them all. On top of my comical hypnotherapy moment, I had an NLP practitioner ask me to imagine my fears as a ball of dark energy which I released from my body by acting out throwing it away from me. I tried Brain Working Recursive Therapy that claims to get right to the root of your cognitive processes and rewrite your negative memories to create new, positive reactions. It was basically hypnotherapy re-packaged. Both did sweet fuck all.
I had basic talk-therapy counselling, which helped to give me an outlet for crying my eyes out to someone who wouldn't judge or criticise me, but no matter how much I cried, talked or imagined my anxiety away, it didn't matter, nothing was able to stop the serge of adrenalin from hitting me when least needed.
Finally, I found myself once again living alone. I felt in control and my anxiety started to ease. But because the build-up had been so extreme and so prolonged, I was stuck with some big hurdles; fast roads, trains, cities, crowds, staying away, and the worst of all, flying. What was it about all these experiences that set me off?
All these activities were connected by the sense of being confined, out of control, and having to trust other humans with my wellbeing. I'd lost the ability to feel safe amongst others in spaces that I can't easily leave. This distrust was not conscious, so it didn't matter how hard I tried to reason with myself. The problem had become an instinct; my entire body reacting in a primal sense to protect me… from nothing.
Then one morning, I had a full anxiety attack at a friend's house because I woke up hungover. I was in a safe place, with one of my best friends who I've stayed with countless times, in her apartment that I know well. It went on for hours until my friend found me in a state on her bathroom floor and fetched me a glass of effervescent powder dissolved in water, an over-the-counter stomach settler containing sodium bicarbonate, paracetamol, potassium and some other stuff. I downed it and to my surprise, and great relief, the symptoms dispersed. Nothing else had changed. Was a simple rescue remedy all I needed to combat what months of talk therapy couldn't? If only it was that simple, right? It certainly got me thinking.
Dr Mark Hyman, an American physician, is the Founder and Medical Director of The UltraWellness Centre in the US. He advocates the critical links between our physical and mental health, treating the brain like a secondary source of information, the primary being our gut. When we create a healthy physical environment for ourselves, we are laying the foundations for all the chemicals and hormones in our body to feed a healthy cognitive state too.
I started to focus on my internal and external physical environments, tackling my symptoms physically instead of mentally. Instead of trying to tell myself I would be ok, which deep down I always knew, I started to learn about the vagus nerve and how you stimulate it by breathing a certain way, which slows down your heartbeat, reversing the symptoms of anxiety.
I started to take small pieces of fruit and dark chocolate with me when facing a fear, because small sugars, once digested, help to produce new serotonin that reduces stress. I played upbeat music and read books or scrolled through pictures of happy memories, and I carried a smooth stone in my pocket that I could grip discreetly. By stimulating my physical senses positively, I was forming a controlled positive state in an environment I had learned to physically repel.
Bit by bit, these methods worked. Travel became achievable and crowds stopped overwhelming me. I bought a new car, a powerful one, so that I could enjoy driving again, and I applied similar techniques on the road; upbeat playlists, snacks and water at the ready, and planned journeys through the countryside until I was ready for the fast roads.
I was doing well. I was overcoming hurdles every day, travelling for work, going to London, meeting new people, staying away from home, each time getting easier. I was exercising and had a much healthier diet.
I didn't, however, believe that I would ever make it back onto a plane. The idea sent chills through me; being trapped for all that time with a load of strangers seemed too big a hurdle. It was impossible to imagine getting over this, and without easy access to trying, I quietly succumbed to the fact that I would probably never explore the world as freely as I used to.
Then as if by fate, a friend invited me to go to Marbella with two days’ notice, during a small work window which meant I could justify the break. There was no logistical reason for me to say no, but the idea sickened me. It wasn't nearly enough time to prepare to face what had become the symbol of my ultimate fear. Yet, practically, if ever there was a perfect moment to try, it was this.
The anxiety started the night before the flight. All those physical symptoms flooded in even though I kept telling myself I didn't have to go, I would only go as far as I could. Once again, my thoughts, feelings and knowledge was futile. My body was on overdrive and I felt physically sick.
Sleep deprived and with an empty stomach, I spent the train ride to the airport trembling and telling myself no experience was worth this hell and I'd be much happier living like a hermit crab for the rest of my life. When I got to Gatwick I went straight to Boots Pharmacy, bought a box of recovery sachets and downed one. Then I sat on the floor somewhere in the corner of the airport and implemented all the other physical tricks I'd learnt.
There was not one part of my brain that believed I could do what I was there to do. The circumstances around me and my perceived fear hadn't changed. But soon, just like before, my body stilled. As we queued and boarded the plane, I kept waiting for the surge of adrenalin to return and disable me, but it didn't. Aretha Franklin blasted in my headphones. I had fruit and chocolate at the ready. I focussed on my friend as she chatted away. We sat down, buckled up, the cabin doors closed - the point I'd feared the most - and we were taking off. No trembles, no sickness, no heart racing, no knots.
Sympathetically, my friend kept talking throughout the flight, even when my interrogation-style questions were repeats or didn't make sense because I'd run out of brain space. By the time we passed the halfway point, I was fine. In fact, I was quietly elated. It didn't seem real that I was on a plane for the first time in seven years, chatting away with the sky beneath me. And my reward was a week of bliss; cocktails, sun, chats and sleep. I had to keep pinching myself!
The return journey wasn't completely absent from my mind as I knew part of the hurdle was getting home without incident. When the day came, I repeated all the same processes, the music, the fruit, the sachets, the talking, but the build-up was nothing in comparison. Once we landed home, I was riding a high even greater than the holiday because I'd managed the entire trip despite my fears. And as if that wasn't enough fear-busting for a lifetime, I was soon invited back, only this time it meant flying solo.
I went straight through the same self-doubt. Once booked, the anxiety hit me and I was certain that no matter how brave I'd been before and how happy I'd felt after achieving that journey, flying alone was beyond me. I imagined being up in the sky, trapped with all those strangers, with nobody to lean on if I needed help. And yet, if I could do it, how free would I be then?
I applied all the same methods and blow me, they worked again. I calmed my body by creating a controlled, positive sensory environment. By the time I boarded the plane, my body was still.
Landing on my own in Malaga knowing how far I'd come was one of the proudest, most liberating, exhilarating experiences of my life - and now I have the travel bug back! Once more, I had the best time, taking in everything that Marbella has to offer and spending each day chilling (lazing), putting the world to rights (chatting shit), listening to great music and eating incredible food (cocktails). The return journey was a breeze.
The symptoms of anxiety are about chemical reactions; adrenalin, cortisol and serotonin, all working for or against you. Many therapists do assist their clients in overcoming these physical reactions with mental tools, but for me, I needed a physical process for a physical problem that all my knowledge and experience could not combat.
In my view, you can spend a lifetime talking about your fears and anxieties, exploring their origins, trying to catch your negative thoughts at the root and change them into something positive. But it’s exhausting trying to mentally override what has become a physical instinct.
Because that's what anxiety is; a fight or flight instinct. It's a primal reaction to your environment that takes place in a heartbeat, before thought even comes into it. Unless you're Philippe Petit and spend your whole life dedicated to mind over matter, how many of us can truly accomplish a Shaolin monk style mind-control that enables us to intersect our primal instincts through thought alone?
This might be more achievable if we could all master the art of instantaneous meditation during our busy lives. But realistically, and from what I've experienced and seen in others, attempting to overcome anxiety this way can be a lifelong, uphill struggle.
I've spoken to so many individuals who are equally exhausted from living with anxiety beneath the surface. The fight or flight sensation is so powerful, it is physically and emotionally draining to experience it when you needn’t. Nobody should have to live this way.
Our body is a powerful vessel that connects us to the earth, and one that is often neglected and abused by Western lifestyle. All the information about our environment starts in our senses and travels to our brain. Children fear the dark because their eyes struggle to gather adequate data and the brain responds to this deficit with fear. When we sense heat, the data starts in our skin and travels to our brain, which responds by telling us not to touch.
This information-gathering is so fast that it feels like one instance, when in fact it is several. Data from multiple senses is gathered by the body and sent to the brain for processing. Could hypnosis convince you to leave your hand in fire because you've managed to intersect your survival instincts? I doubt it.
When it comes to anxiety disorders, our self-preservation instinct has learnt, usually through trauma, to protect ourselves from everyday life. Talk therapies focus on the difference between perceived harm vs real harm. My view is that my brain is not perceiving harm at all, it's my body causing the issue, so I can try to talk myself off the cliff edge all day, my body continues to send distress signals to my brain and that dreaded inner argument forms.
I didn't want this battle for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to have to talk about my problems to death and I reject a huge portion of the therapy industry that seems to advocate and capitalise off people’s ability to stagnate behind thinking instead of acting.
I devised a model that creates a controlled, positive sensory environment. It is about harmonising work and lifestyle patterns with diet, nutrition, hydration, exercise, sleep and mindfulness. This method empowers the body to sooth the mind, optimising all the atoms in our possession instead of just our cognitive ones.
Because the mind, while amazing, is an infinite space where we can easily become lost. The body is what grounds us with so many intricate mechanisms that we can use to our advantage. My new philosophy is to work from the outside in, and while I’ve had a few brief wobbles in other areas since flying (public speaking, ouch), I’ve not once been defeated. Now I’m learning to fine-tune my model to optimise my experiences and help others to do the same.