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Surviving the sabre toothed tigers




  • States of mind that large numbers of us are very familiar with in our busy, full-on, hectic lives.
  • Also feelings that so many of our young people are struggling with, as I see in my work as a school counsellor and psychotherapist.

It is thought that as many as 1 in 6 young people will experience an anxiety problem at some point in their lives (Young Minds 2016). Thankfully people are gradually becoming more open about sharing their experiences of anxiety, with both James Arthur and Zoella talking very honestly about their struggles just this last week, as well as our lovely ‘leader’ (Naomi), in her blog for this World Mental Health Awareness Day.

Often, alongside these mind states, come those distressing physical symptoms of a racing heart, sweaty palms, fast breathing, tension or shaking, running to the loo, a churning or nauseous tummy, dizziness and many more. But these sensations are all there for a purpose. They come about when, for whatever reason, our mind tells us that we are under threat. The body responds immediately, via the Sympathetic Nervous System to initiate a rapid chain of events whereby chemicals such as Adrenalin and Cortisol flood the body and prepare us for fighting off the threat or running to escape from it – the ‘Fight or Flight’ response. These powerful bodily reactions to threat have, very cleverly, come about over thousands of years through the process of evolution, but of course the ‘threats’ that we face today are very different from those our ancestors had to deal with.

In years gone by when hunter-gatherers were out looking for their next meal, they may well have come face to face with a very real threat of something like a sabre tooth tiger jumping out of the bushes at them. At this point there would have been no time to think smart. Their bodies would have had to act smart immediately and either battle the tiger or run for their lives. That is why we experience all those strong physical sensations in the body. The increase in heart and breathing rate to deliver plentiful oxygen to the muscles in our arms and legs, ready to run or fight. Those muscles may then become tense and tremble in anticipation of the effort. The blood supply will be diverted away from our central organs of digestion to prioritise the peripheries as those arms and legs spring into action. This can cause the sick or butterflies feeling. Very cleverly (and somewhat amusingly for the teens I work with) our body sheds its load to make us lighter so that we can run faster, which explains those repeated pre-exam or public speaking rushes to the loo! Profuse sweating will not only cool us down, but also make us more slippery so we can escape more easily if caught (nice!). These symptoms themselves can feel very frightening which can increase the sense of threat and repeat the cycle, which can then escalate things further. Sometimes understanding where these feelings stem from, can reduce that fear factor and reduce the intensity of the experience.

It can be the case that, if the mind and body have experienced prolonged exposure to heightened levels of stress or anxiety, this can start to become the norm and people can experience the symptoms of anxiety without there being a recognisable trigger. It is also very important to acknowledge that there can be experiences in our past that may not have been able to be processed, elements of our personality or difficult current life events that mean we are more prone to feeling anxious in certain settings. It can sometimes be beneficial to think about these with some professional support, if you feel it could help.

However, whilst it is thankfully pretty rare for us to be pounced on by a sabre-toothed tiger these days, there are many 21st century threats that face us which often tend to be more mental than physical. These might include things like relationship difficulties, financial worries, work stresses and those pressures to be living the ‘perfect life’, amongst a myriad of others which I’m sure most of us could list pretty easily. However, unfortunately our minds don’t necessarily differentiate what type of threat we are under – it just screams ‘LOOK OUT!’ and the body reacts.

For those facing the tiger, they would quite literally have had to fight or run for their life and this would have had the important effect of burning off all those stress hormones, allowing the balance to be restored. They might also have come home at the end of their somewhat stressful and traumatic day and sat around the campfire, recounting the tale to their friends and family and offloading any powerful emotions. Unfortunately, this ‘campfire time’ may be something that we give less priority to in our busy, modern lives. Another aspect of our full and demanding lifestyles is that we often find there is very little time to stop ‘doing’ and to just take some time to ‘be’; giving space to whatever is showing up. I was lucky enough to hear Jon Kabat-Zinn, (the father of secular mindfulness training), speak some time ago and loved his reminder to us that, “We are after all Human Beings, not Human Doings!!” I’m sure many of us could do well to remind ourselves of this on a regular basis.

So how can we work with our worries and anxieties, to support ourselves and take care of our mental health? Of course we are all individuals and there is never one quick fix, but there are a range of possibilities which have been shown to be useful.

Talk about your feelings

I probably would say this, as a psychotherapist, but so often giving our feelings some space and time can help to process them so they don’t feel so overwhelming.

Keep Active

The double whammy of burning off those stress hormones that can start to build up, combined with the exercise-induced release of the body’s natural antidepressant (endorphins), is a great reason to get moving. You don’t need to be doing anything too strenuous. A good brisk walk for 20 minutes can do the trick.

Eat Well

It is so true that what we fuel our bodies with has a huge influence on our wellbeing as a whole, but our emotional health can be especially effected by our diet. The team here at Botanica are extremely knowledgeable and are a great source of guidance and advice.

Keep in Touch

Friends and family can make you feel included and cared for. They can offer different views from whatever’s going on inside your own head. They can help keep you grounded and can sometimes help you solve practical problems. Even if you can’t catch up face to face, a phone call, message, or chatting online can be really supportive. Keep the lines of communication open: it’s good for you!

Do something you enjoy or are good at

What do you love doing? What activities can you lose yourself in? What did you love doing in the past? Enjoying yourself can help beat stress. Doing something you’re good at or achieving something boosts your self-esteem, even if it’s just tackling the ironing pile or sorting out a messy drawer. Concentrating on a hobby can help you forget your worries for a while and can change your mood.

Take Time Out

Rest is a weapon! Taking a pause to ‘be’ is something we rarely allow ourselves and it can prove incredibly nourishing, just to stop for a few moments and breathe!

Ask for help

None of us are superhuman. Again, this may be something that doesn’t come very naturally or easily to many of us, but we all get tired or overwhelmed by how we feel sometimes, or frustrated when things don’t go to plan. You might also find it’s a boost for the other person; feeling they have done something to help. If you really don’t feel happy asking friends/ family, there are some great online support groups, charities and forums. (See below)

If you drink, do so sensibly

We often drink alcohol to change our mood or to escape from difficult feelings but the effect is only temporary. This form of self-medication will only make you feel worse because of the way the alcohol affects your brain and the rest of your body. Drinking is not a good way to manage difficult feelings.

Accept who you are

Some of us make people laugh, some are really creative, some run marathons whilst others cook fantastic meals or can make beautiful gardens. We’re all different and it’s much healthier to accept our individuality than to wish you were more like someone else. There may be things you are not so good at, but also focus on what you can do well. It may sound corny, but be proud of who you are.

Care for others

Helping out can make us feel needed and valued, and that boosts our self-esteem. It also helps us to see the world from another angle. This can help to put our own problems in a different perspective. However, make sure you are looking after yourself as a priority. We can’t pour from an empty cup.

Charities and Online Support

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