Brawn to brain: An outside-in approach to anxiety
Updated: Apr 2
The body is our sensory powerhouse. It's easy to forget this when dealing with matters of mental health and we often assume that if we're suffering from stress or anxiety, both the problem and answer exist in our mind. I believe this view is outdated and exclusive. It's time to utilise the full set of artillery you were born with.
The first time you experience a full-blown panic attack is, quite simply, evil. It's an adrenalin-induced, heart-pumping state of terror that feels like you've gone mad. The worst part is the idea of being stuck in that terror forever, with no escape. Of course, that's never the case, as the sensation always eventually passes one way or another. But the conclusion offers little comfort. One panic attack is enough to live in fear of ever experiencing another, and this is how people become ring-fenced by anxiety.
The fear of having a panic attack can manifest into daily, normal activities that you never previously had a problem with, and often this is what people who suffer from anxiety struggle to get across to others. When people want to help, they'll say things like, flying is the safest form of transport, or we're all friends here, or they'll ask - what do you think will happen?
And it can be very difficult to explain that your ultimate fear is your inability to control yourself. Because a panic attack feels like a total loss of control of your mind and body, launching you into fight or flight mode in front of others, or alone, with nowhere to run. Just one experience can leave a jarring memory of losing yourself needlessly, and you can start to develop a belief system that you are unable to fully control yourself under certain circumstances - ones you quickly learn to avoid.
When it comes to mental health, enormous efforts are in place today to encourage transparency so that more people get the help they need instead of suffering in silence. Social and medical understanding have come on leaps and bounds, but there are still huge deficits to overcome, such as how many groups continue to feel a stigma. Panic attacks and anxiety can feel like a weakness, especially in the professional world; a trait of the eccentric and the silly.
While talking and sharing raise better awareness and build connectivity, talk therapies offering treatment platforms do not work for everyone. If you're in the category of individuals who have painstakingly invested in talk therapies but are still battling anxiety, how do you liberate yourself from this nightmare? In my experience, it's about refocussing on what you can do, and learning how to take back control by empowering your physical self first. You start by reacquainting yourself with anxiety and what the fight or flight instinct is really about.
As discussed in my last blog, if your body has entered fight or flight mode, regardless of why, it's damn hard, nigh-on impossible, to talk or think yourself into a calm state. If you experience a major injury like breaking a bone, it's common for the body to pump you with adrenalin, resulting in rapid breathing, sickness, tunnel vision and even black-outs. If you experience these symptoms as a result of harmless, daily activities instead of major injuries or traumas, it suggests that your fight or flight instinct has become damaged, usually as a result of trauma.
Knowing this, however, does not make it any easier to overcome. The fight or flight instinct is a fast, powerful, physical reaction. It is not something the human brain is designed to be able to switch off by thought alone, because it is the ultimate survival instinct, meant to be activated during times of serious threat.
This instinct is so bulletproof, it can make us permanently lose entire chunks of memory during trauma, because the body has entered flight mode and is doing everything possible to shut down from harm, including blocking out shocking and upsetting content. It also has the ability to arm us with extreme bursts of energy during fight mode, because adrenalin pumping through the body ignites our muscles for action. So what's really happening here?
When a threat is perceived, a powerful chain reaction takes place. A part of our brain called the amygdala activates; basically our fear radar. It goes off like an alarm and triggers our hypothalamus; the part of our brain that controls our sympathetic nervous system and pituitary gland. The sympathetic nervous system responds by activating our adrenal medulla, flooding a load of epinephrine and norepinephrine chemicals into our bloodstream. At the same time, our pituitary gland activates our adrenal cortex, releasing a shed load of cortisol into our system.
This chemical reaction elevates our body for action and we experience a range of sensations that are all part of fight or flight. Our blood pressure and heart rate increase, rushing blood and oxygen to our muscles as they tense for action, causing us to shake with all that extra energy. We develop rapid breathing as more oxygen is demanded, which can lead to dizziness as carbon dioxide lowers. Our liver starts to convert glycogen into glucose. Our vision and hearing impairs. Our mouth dries up. Our digestion slows down. Our bladder relaxes to unload any unwanted weight. And all this can happen in seconds, thrusting us into such an alien state of panic that it can feel like we've gone mad.
But, that really is because it's just that; alien. In Western culture, we no longer experience daily threats to our survival, but this instinct remains embedded in our design. We're supposed to only experience it during those hopefully rare traumas such as accidents, fights or assaults. The problem with trauma, is that it can leave our memories tangled with unreal threats. Even small incidents from our childhood that may not even feel like trauma can resonate through time. The result can be an overdriven, hypersensitive fight or flight instinct that unnecessarily activates during the most impromptu, everyday life activities; shopping, travelling, socialising, exercising, just leaving the house for some.
Talk therapies such as Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Hypnotherapy and others, pledge to untangle the mind so that the unreal threats are no longer perceived and the fight or flight instinct normalises. Their methods derive from a series of varying techniques including talking, sharing, visualising, imagining, remembering and meditating; aiming to replace your negative neuro-pathways with positive ones.
I take my hat off to anyone who has ever been able to fully repair a damaged fight or flight instinct this way, but it didn't work for me, and believe me, I tried. I gave up trying when a therapist argued that I couldn't possibly remember a bad memory now that it was frozen in a block of ice in my mind, and only a fake happy memory I'd made up during a session could now be recalled in its place. That was my last session.
And I know these "solutions" don't work for many others too. In fact, considering I am open to sharing my experiences with anyone who is interested, I cannot name a single individual that I've met who has fully overcome anxiety through talk therapy. I've met many individuals who feel that talk therapies have helped, by providing an outlet and coping mechanisms, but none who can say the issue has fully gone away.
And here's why. As I said in my last blog, most of us are not Philippe Petit (the tight-rope artist who famously high-wired between the Twin Towers). Most of us, who have normal lives and careers, do not possess a level of mind-control much beyond motivating ourselves to be proactive, upbeat and resilient when we need to. Some of us even struggle with these. It doesn't mean you're weak. It means you're normal. It means you are operating the best you can in a busy culture that clutters the mind with noise, data and demands for excessive multitasking.
Finding a sense of mental tranquility and quietening the brain in a culture like this can most certainly be achieved through mindfulness and meditation and I strongly advocate these. But while mindfulness and meditation are essential to achieving a healthy mindset, they are not the answer to everything and I believe that for the average person they become borderline useless when inflicted with a damaged fight or flight instinct. Because the problem is physical. Fight or flight is physical. Adrenalin and cortisol, rapid breathing, racing heart, overwhelmed senses and nausea are physical.
So the mental trauma responsible for damaging your fight and flight instinct in my view is irrelevant. If you treat the issue as a physical one, it's like breaking a bone and instead of wearing a cast for six months, trying to talk about how the accident felt and visualising yourself better. To me, this requires the same level of mind control as these incredible stories you hear of individuals that have defied science by seemingly willing themselves out of paralysis. It may have happened to some, the human mind is a mysterious tool after all, but these instances are rare and for most of us, the story is very different. Again, this is not a sign of weakness.
The result that I see in volume, and the result that I experienced, is a strained existence where your mental self is in constant conflict with your physical self. Some people won't mind this conflict. Some seem quietly content in getting on with their lives, privately battling anxiety because they feel it's just a part of who they are. I'm not one of those people, and for me, being limited by a damaged fight or flight instinct for any amount of time was frustrating, disappointing and exhausting.
I am a results-orientated, practical individual. The idea of living the rest of my life through a clouded lens of daily internal dialogues and fear was heartbreaking. I didn't want to live that way. Through my journey, as someone who sought help from various talk therapies and invested in large sums of money to get nowhere, I was fortunate to stumble upon - and subsequently develop - a new practical approach that set me free and empowered me in ways I never imagined.
I created the Brawn to Brain Model; an outside-in approach to optimising your physical and mental state, empowering you to utilise every atom in your possession to it's healthiest potential. The model takes dedication, learning, and a level of organisation to apply to everyday life, but it is completely doable for the average adult and doesn't require any significant financial investment or guidance. You can do it for yourself and by yourself.
The Brawn to Brain model involves a three-step process. Firstly, it involves learning about your anatomy so that you fully understand your body and how it operates under different circumstances. Secondly, it involves creating a controlled, positive sensory environment through your physical senses and systems, which you can utilise at all times, to better equip you for times of stress and anxiety. This acts like a kind of hamster ball, providing a restorative barrier between you and the triggers that set you off. Thirdly, the model requires applying yourself to your fears so that you can reacquaint yourself with the fight or flight instinct, to regain control of this experience.
Because there are individuals in this world who have a healthy relationship with this instinct. Take rugby players, for example. They break bones and experience extreme physical trauma all the time, fuelling their body with adrenalin just like your anxiety does, but the experience doesn't put them off the sport or make them agoraphobic. Their sensation is triggered by a physical trauma, which feels acceptable, so they have no reason to associate it with fear of other things, or the fear of losing control.
But when you've experienced this sensation as a result of a panic attack during normal life activities, you immediately associate the issue with fear. I have found that understanding and normalising this physical process enables you to disassociate it with fear or mental weakness, and empowers you to physically prevent it from taking place altogether (when you're not in actual real danger) or at least controlling and reducing the outcome so that it is shorter and less traumatic.
The learning phase sounds lengthy, but I'm working hard to put this into further reading material to support you. The second phase, creating a controlled, positive sensory environment, involves you identifying positive stimuli for your body's senses to use as tools in times of stress; reading aids, musical aids, comforting scented items, favourite healthy snacks and items that are aesthetically or emotionally pleasing to touch; trinkets, keepsakes, soft materials etc.
These tools don't sound much of weapon against the freight-train of fight or flight, however, when applied with intent and simultaneously with other aids that the model proposes (breathing, digestion, hydration etc) they act as powerful physical anchors that keep you from becoming mentally lost to fight or flight. And trust me, your body's senses are pretty damn powerful, so if you nourish them, they will work for you instead of against you.
I honestly didn't think I would ever step on a plane again. I didn't believe I had it in me, and that negative belief system continued right up until I actually did it. I didn't get there because I believed I could, despite what all the positive mental attitude warriors will tell you. I got there because I discovered a way of physically understanding my body and taking back control of my anatomy.
This model is the only thing that set me free from the nightmare of living with deliberating daily anxiety after years of prolonged stress and trauma, when countless talk therapies couldn't help me. The solution didn't appear overnight but over the course of several months and I was very fortunate that a collective of opportunities, friends and other outside influences led me to finally discovering a way out. If I can replicate that journey to free others from the same nightmare, it makes every day that I suffered worth it.
In under a year, I went from not being able to drive across my hometown to flying to another country on my own. This model is practical and effective. I'm sharing it now because so many of you have asked for more information since my last blog, and I am working on a much fuller, more detailed version that will be available on my website soon.
In the meantime, think about the different elements illustrated in the model and try to recall how these elements felt the last time you felt anxious. Start to think about your anatomy in greater detail. Start to be mindful of how different foodstuffs impact the way you feel; caffeine, processed food, sugary foods etc. Think about how hydration and exercise impact your resilience levels. Start to really give credit to your senses and the way data is transferring from the outside world into your body and mind. Start to experiment with intercepting this data with your sensory aids and explore how this affects you. Give this a go and feel free to email me with any questions along the way or simply to share your experiences with me.
Good luck, and I know you can do this, even if right now you don't believe you can.