It made a lot of sense to me, and many things fell into place, when I understood this fundamental truth. Human beings are hardwired for stress and anxiety. It's no wonder so many of us experience panic attacks and search for ways to control anxiety.
From an evolutionary biological perspective, people who were too relaxed or laid-back didn’t make it. A healthy amount of paranoia makes some people more risk-averse and therefore more likely to survive and pass on their genes. So these early humans had an enhanced level of threat perception which enabled them to survive in a dangerous world. They would be more likely to store food, more cautious about what might be behind that bush. They'd be more anxious to conform to social behaviour. Without a functioning community they would be unlikely to survive.
But as we have exchanged wolves and bears for AI and smartphones, our primordial threat perception has not kept pace with societal change. And as our brains are unable to distinguish between physical threats and mental stress, our lizard brain believes we are in constant danger. The thing that helped human beings to become the dominant species on the planet no longer serves us. In fact, it's now one of the main causes of suffering. A world full of fear may be one of the most critical factors in the development of society. And the future of the human race.
This is the state of hypervigilance - a runaway train of threat perception, where short-term thinking and poor decision-making rule.
Your Body's Response to Overwhelm and Stress
The triune (three) brain model has now been largely superseded by a more holistic view of neurology and the central nervous system. We now know that many areas of the brain and body are involved in emotional regulation. The emphasis on threat-fear based response is largely a pre-human response. The limbic brain contains the amygdala and hypothalamus and developed around the time of early reptiles and dinosaurs.
This part of the brain does not register concepts of time, and does not apply or respond to logic. In other words, stress, anxiety and fear are not (in the vast majority of cases) logical. They are beyond words (you can’t talk to a lizard) and the response seldom relates to the perceived threat itself. Now often simply a feeling of overwhelm, due in large part to their being too much data for our brain to process.
Your Secret Weapon - The Vagus Nerve
In the clinic, a lot of people tell me they find it impossible to meditate even using an app. A significant proportion of people actually feel worse or more anxious when they try to relax, meditate or notice their breathing. And this is understandable. If you have an exaggerated threat perception, being asked to sit still and relax can make you feel highly anxious.
I have developed a process around this concept:
If the problem is hypervigilance, then the solution is what I term adaptogenic resiliency.
Hypervigilance - sub-conscious perception of threat even in the absence of danger, an exaggerated fear of danger
Adaptogenic resiliency - the non-conscious/autonomic ability to self-regulate in the moment
If we dig down into the causes of illnesses in the industrially developed world, we find something significant. A disturbance in pro-inflammatory stress hormone activity. Not surprising if we are constantly drip-feeding stress-hormones in response to perceived threat. How can we best measure this to know what is working?
But we can go deeper than that. What is it that drives HRV as well as many of the body’s self-regulatory mechanisms, within the autonomic nervous system (ANS)?
The answer appears to be the vagus nerve, and the idea of vagal tone.
We can think of the vagus nerve as being like a muscle. You can train it to become stronger or increase tone over time. Training the vagus and the body's ability to maintain balance and self-regulate, is perhaps the ultimate metric for improving resiliency.
Although almost never life threatening, a panic attack can feel like you are dying. You can’t breathe, your chest is tight, your heart is racing, you want to run away.
Increasing the relaxation response and breathing is the key to controlling feelings of panic and anxiety. Panic and panic attacks are a felt-sense response to what you are experiencing in a particular moment. They're not necessarily logical or rationale. Trying to analyse this response is usually less helpful than learning how to notice panic before it sneaks up on you. And acquiring resources that enable you to create a different reaction other than panic.
General Anxiety And Free-floating Anxiety
The modern world is basically a very stressful and anxiety provoking place to live. In the last fifty years the world has changed more than in the previous five hundred, and by no means all for the better.
Financial stress, lack of community and family, poor work-rest balance, information overload all push us further and further to the edge. It's no wonder they create an atmosphere of threat.
You And Your Lizard
At the base of your skull you have a primitive brain left over from our early reptilian origins. This brain existed before we evolved mammal and primate brains on top. Its job is to assess threat and help you avoid harm. It does this by constantly scanning your environment, and is doing so even when you aren’t aware of it.
A good thing if you absent-mindedly step off a curb and need a shot of adrenalin to jump out the way of a bus. Not helpful at all if you are simply tired, overstretched and feeling put upon. Feelings of anxiety your primal brain can easily interpret as ‘threat’.
Perceived threat in the absence of an actual direct attack is anxiety provoking. Your body is primed for action by adrenalin but there is no tiger to actually run away from.
How Do I Learn To Love My Lizard?
It’s not complex, but it can take time to ‘downregulate’ threat-perception and other responses to a manageable level. You can achieve this by doing two things simultaneously:
- 1. Increasing your resilience to stress (your capacity to cope with it);
- 2. Use stress reducing techniques that will decrease your reaction to stress.
- This is your Adaptogenic Resiliency, the total of your personal ability to build better stress buffers and containing capacity, alongside improved vagus nerve tone. I’ll talk about this more in future articles.