Dr. Horst H. Mueller, RPsych, CRHSPP, FBCIA-EEG
Anxiety is one of the most widely experienced negative states of the human condition. It has been variously estimated by researchers that anxiety disorders alone (including generalized anxiety, simple phobias, panic disorder, social phobia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder) cost the Canadian economy some $4 billion dollars per year in treatment costs and reduced or lost productivity.
We all know the external signs of anxiety: sweaty palms, tight chest, pounding heart, irregular breathing, sexual problems, butterflies in the stomach, restlessness, irritability, trembling hands, feelings of being out of control, dread, or impending panic. Both outwardly and inwardly, anxiety shares many of the features of the classic fight-or-flight response. This evolutionary hard-wired reaction responds automatically to a perceived threat by activating our sympathetic nervous system. In an adrenaline rush we pour out over 1400 biological chemicals that accelerate our metabolism in various ways— a powerful reaction intended to help us deal with some external threat by running away or fighting.
When a true external threat exists, our natural response is called fear. We can respond to an external threat appropriately and then after activating and using our fight-or-flight response, we can relax and allow our body to activate the relaxation response. During the relaxation response, the effects of the fight-flight response are terminated, and the stress-related biochemicals and their byproducts are neutralized.
However, in anxiety, the threat is internally created: we are distressed by some potential or future event. And since there is no way to fight or flee a potential or future event, we are left in a state of persistent arousal. We are still feeling the threat, but there is no way to escape. One curious quality of anxiety is that, since the external threat is not present, our attention and fear become focused on the symptoms of the anxiety itself. Thus we begin to fear that because our breathing is constricted, we will suffocate or lose consciousness. We obsess that because our heart is thumping, we will have a heart attack; and so on. We may become anxious any time we notice or tune in to how our body is feeling, thus increasing our anxiety even more.
One way to neutralize anxiety is simply to turn off the symptoms of the fight-or-flight response, like turning off a falsely-triggered car alarm. This is one of the ways in which modern biofeedback technology works so effectively to alleviate anxiety. With biofeedback we can learn body-mind tools that have powerful and, in many cases, unsurpassed effects in rapidly producing deep relaxation by immediately switching OFF the flight-or-flight response and switching ON the relaxation response.
Try to imagine being profoundly relaxed and experiencing anxiety. It's probably hard for you to do. There's evidence that deep relaxation and fear are mutually exclusive— when you are experiencing one, you cannot truly experience the other. So, to the degree that your brain and body learn to relax, you can eliminate anxiety. Once learned, the skills are always available to you, just like learning to ride a bike. Once you learn the skill of balance, you "own" it and can use it forever.
In my own clinical and health psychology practice, I have seen very positive results in reducing the sympathetic nervous system arousal that accompanies anxiety through the use of Heart Rate Variability biofeedback training.
Another very important component to effective management of anxiety is to carefully examine the thoughts or “cognitions” that lead to becoming anxious and consciously practice changing them. For example, you may be booked on an airline flight to Miami tomorrow morning but find yourself thinking of a recent news story of a commercial airliner crash in Florida. If you allow yourself to simply continue thinking about stories of airplane crashes you will only become increasingly anxious. Instead you should think of all the thousands of airplane flights around the world that land at their destination without incident and about how good it will be to arrive in warm and sunny Miami.
Many psychologists offer a therapy called “Cognitive Behavioural Therapy” (CBT) which is focused on helping you to recognize habitual ways of thinking about things that increase your anxiety and help you to supplant these dysfunctional thoughts with more productive thoughts and behaviours that will reduce your anxiety. Research has shown CBT, especially when combined with biofeedback training to reduce autonomic nervous system arousal, to be as effective as medications in the treatment of anxiety disorders without known adverse effects.
Dr. Horst H. Mueller is a registered psychologist with a private practice in clinical and health psychology located within Green Apple Health Care in Edmonton, Alberta. He has many years of experience in working with patients suffering from chronic psychological problems and medical illnesses and is an expert in the areas of cognitive behavioural therapy, somatic biofeedback, and EEG neurotherapy. Dr. Mueller can be reached by phone at: 780.485.9468 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.