When logic fails, use the language of old.
Mandy Cooper, Chief Executive
Anxiety is prompted by an age old mechanism of the mind that is designed to be constantly scanning the environment for danger. It’s not particularly discerning and has little capacity to filter and distinguish ‘relevant’ information, which goes some way to explaining the volatility of anxiety and its penchant for ‘appearing out of nowhere’. For the purposes of this story, we’ll call it the ‘security officer’.
One role of the security officer is to use sensory input (sights, sounds etc) to look for patterns and clues. This register of patterns and clues has been developed from a lifetime of collected memories; snapshots of circumstances and the detail of things that hurt us before.
So, imagine that once, a long time ago, someone was out shopping and witnessed a car accident. They weren’t involved but it was a shock and they stood stunned and helpless as they watched the emergency services do their work. The scene was chaotic and they remembered seeing a child in the assembled crowd, wearing a bright red coat. Years on, they are walking in town and contemplating some shopping, lost in a world of their own, thinking of things they needed to do. Suddenly, they feel a pang of anxiety. Their mouth becomes dry and fingers start to tingle. The heart begins to race a little faster and these physical symptoms become frightening – causing them to question what is happening, to stand and freeze, rooted to the spot. It’s a normal day. Nothing is happening. There is no threat, no danger. They look around and notice a small child in a red coat.
Their security officer had already noted it. As they walked along, seemingly oblivious, this completely disconnected event of memory had triggered danger signals – as the security officer noted the pattern in the environment – shops, outdoors, child, red coat.
We realise what’s happening – and try to talk to ourselves, tell ourselves to calm down. But the security officer doesn’t listen to logic. In fact, it’s designed not to be reasonable at all. That’s because danger doesn’t have time for reason – danger requires action. And, for this reason, when danger is detected, the security officer performs some immediate shutdowns of cognitive circuits – particularly all of the clever and logical ones – in favour of some quick and simple decisions.
This works very well when, driving down the road, you see an adventurous badger crossing the road. You haven’t got time to think through the varying scenarios and consequences of swerving this way or that – whether swerving left into a tree will damage the car more than swerving right into a phone box – or whether stopping suddenly will cause problems for the traffic behind – or whether you could forgive yourself if you simply hit the badger and carried on. These scenarios take time and musing – and the security officer makes sure that no such negotiations ever commence. At the first recognition of danger, the cognitive switches are thrown and access to ‘executive’ function are impeded. Simplistic thinking is engaged – stop or go – left or right. In essence, this process makes us temporarily stupid – but necessarily reactive.
But, because the security officer is not discerning, this same process ensues at other, and often more inconvenient and inappropriate, times. It’s the reason that you can prepare to give a well-rehearsed speech and then forget your own name when standing on a platform. It’s the reason why you can revise for an exam and find yourself with a blank page and an equally devoid store of information. It’s the reason you can meet someone new and start fumbling over your words, as if the power of speech has left you.
And the security officer is proudly seated in the office, discerning the threat of a crowd of people, a new introduction, an important exam, and is waiting, with all seriousness, for you to remove yourself from these situations.
All cognitive input and logic is lost. The security officer doesn’t speak the language of logic and common sense and reason. And the comments of well meaning companions, telling you to calm down or ask what the problem is, will fall on equally deaf ears.
But there’s one way to communicate. A language that will step the security officer down from high alert and restore access to speech, your wit, your charm and your strategic and logical, clever self.
I always detect a bit of a groan when I teach this exercise. It’s as if the concept of breathing has been heard too many times before and everyone’s a bit bored of it. So, I always counter this at the beginning by acknowledging that. But this breathing is different – specific – and targeted. And it works.
The reason it works is because our ‘in breath’ and our ‘out breath’ have two associations. Breathing in associates (physiologically) with stress. Breathing out associates with calm. When you sink into an armchair at the end of a long day, you exhale a deep sigh – you don’t take a deep breath in!
To communicate with the security officer that all is well, you just need to breathe out more than you breathe in. It works when anxiety is preventing sleep, it supports exams and enhances public speaking, meetings and all manner of social situations. Use the 7/11 technique – breathe in for 7 seconds, and breathe out for 11 seconds. Within 5 or 6 breaths, you’ll start to feel calmer – as the security officer steps down the red alert and opens up the cognitive switches.
In treatment, we know that whilst cognitive education, reason and learning have a role to play in therapy, we also engage the old languages; the stories, the narratives, the metaphors and analogies, along with the physical techniques and activities that work in tandem with the different parts of the brain; activating the imaginative resources and the executive functions together – providing a depth of intervention that goes beyond understanding and logic – and into the powerful therapeutic realm of emotion and learning itself.
Bayberry incorporates breathing and other fast anxiety-reducing techniques within all of our recovery programmes. If you’re interested in knowing more, please contact us on 0800 690 6366