The Mind Body Approach to helping Anxiety
So many people suffer from anxiety in Australia. It may be that they experience an upset stomach or nausea or heart palpations when they are stressed, or it may be that they experience full blown panic attacks.
There are many different types of anxiety. Sometimes anxiety is caused by compromised health while other times its driven by psychological factors. In Mind Body Medicine we deal with the first cause by trying to address the root cause of the comprised health. In terms of anxiety caused by psychological factors we commonly see two key types:
- Performance based anxiety – will I be good enough?
- Fear based anxiety – will I be safe?
What both have in common is excess thinking. Generally the more anxious the client the more active their mind. They normally are aware that their mind is never still but usually do not understand why.
The first step in understanding what is going on is to learn about how the brain functions. We have two sides to the brain that are extremely different. They communicate, but have completely different conceptions of the world.
Anxiety is a state that develops when one side of the brain – the logic part of our self -becomes dominant. The logic hemisphere (left half) breaks the world into bits, compares our self to others, thinks of itself as separate and different from others. It is good at doing the same thing again and again. It looks at connection as finding points of common interest. Logic gets us organised and provides words and language.
When the logic half of the brain is dominant people feel disconnected, bored easily, out of touch with themselves and life. They need constant mental stimulation.
Their constant and excessive internal ‘chatter’ comes because the logic hemisphere has been dialled up while the other side of the brain – the Gestalt hemisphere – has dialled down.
The Gestalt hemisphere (right half) sees the whole and not the bits. When we are connected with this part of our brain we are present in the moment, we feel like we belong and are part of something bigger than ourselves. Our mind is still and we are completely aware of ourselves and everything around us.
The Gestalt hemisphere allows us to connect truly to others. For example, I can remember looking at my daughter for the first time and really having a sense of who she is. ‘Knowing’ her. I can still see now what I saw in her then, even though many years have passed. That is not a logic process, it is a Gestalt process. It’s the same with my Labrador. She may look the same, and behave the same as other Labradors, but when I connect with her I can get a sense of her unique self. I am going to refer to this aspect of self as the ‘innate’ self.
The Gestalt self has no words. Its language is body movement, tone and emotion. They say that more than half the communication we have with others involves these things.
When this part of the brain communicates internally with our self it does so through the body. So for example when you are making a decision about the future, a part of your brain (orbital frontal cortex) projects messages down into your body (via the autonomic nervous system) to give you a sense of how the brain thinks you will feel if you make that choice. That is why people say ‘my gut instinct was’.
This communication through the body is extremely important because this part of the brain is the one that connects us with our instincts and intuition. If we dial this down then how are we to know what is safe or not safe?
Anxiety is effectively a state where the mind is trying to think its way to a safer state. The problem is that there are more unknowns than knows – control is never quite obtainable. Whether its performance anxiety or fear based anxiety, the mind is overactive.
In the case of fear based anxiety the mind is constantly vigilant looking for signs of danger. The gut instincts and knowing from the Gestalt half of the brain are ignored and instead the logic brain tries to take over assessments of safety. This leads to constant mental activity in the vain attempt to control the environment to run away from potential dangers.
The solution to this type of anxiety is to re-establish the connection of the client with their knowing. Generally they are confused about what this means. They are used to experiencing the bad feelings in their gut that come with anxiety. They realise that these feelings can’t be trusted because they are the outcome of the excess thinking.
What needs to be explained is that we have thoughts, feelings and ‘knowing’. People use different words for knowing – wisdom, instincts, intuition. But the key thing is that knowing is certain, its not thought through. Feelings are different. They are constantly evolving and changing and moving.
When this is understood and explored in a Mind Body Medicine session it becomes liberating for the client. They can let go of the constant chatter and start to trust in that deeper knowing. As they do that their anxiety transforms and their sense of connection to themselves and others grows.
In the case of performance anxiety the mind is constantly evaluating other people’s expectations – in order to try to meet these expectations and avoid criticism and judgment. This inevitably leads to perfectionist tendencies and the feeling like life is always a struggle. Malcolm Fraser’s famous quote “life was not meant to be easy” is a good example of this type of mentality.
The root of this pattern is a lack of acceptance of the innate self. The person focuses on their actions as defining who they are rather than recognising in themselves what they can see in their pets or children – that there is something inherently valuable about themselves that has nothing to do with what they achieve.
In Mind Body Medicine we help these clients connect truly with their innate self and as they do their conception of themselves changes completely. This can then eliminate their performance anxiety because it no longer is so important to their conception of themselves.
This process re-establishes a balance between the Logic and Gestalt halves of the brain. Seeing their innate self requires us to encourage the use of the Gestalt. Generally this is done through helping the client become aware of their physical body – and in so doing they gain insights to themselves.
Anxiety is an excess thinking state that is caused by a dominance of the logic brain. In Mind Body Medicine we change this by increasing the client’s awareness of their body, which helps increase their awareness of their own wisdom and knowing.
This deeper connection to themselves replaces uncertainty with certainty and eliminates the need for the excessive thinking that was driving their anxiety.