A threat can arise in many forms. Years ago, it would have been a wild animal that posed a potential danger, responded to with a fight or by running away — flight. Nowadays we don’t often face the physical threat of an animal attack, more likely it being the menace of street crime or the risk of an injury whilst undertaking activity. The context of each of these scenarios is very different with distinct and personal meanings that result in varying responses.
The key point about a threat is that is must be interpreted as being dangerous in order to arouse activity in the autonomic nervous system. This system is the link between what we think, the meaning we ascribe to a circumstance and how the body responds. With connections that reach far into the body systems, in particular the cardiovascular system and the gut, the autonomic system is a major player in creating awareness that something is potentially unsafe and hence drives behaviours to approach or avoid.
Most of the time we do not face a physical threat. However, familiar feelings in the body signify anxiety most likely on a daily basis: tension, butterflies in the stomach (actually changing blood flow that triggers neural activity), increased heart and breathing rates and perhaps a sense of panic. Why? Because of our thoughts.
Thoughts can be threatening. A thought that is lived, given significance, engaged with or is considered to be self-defining, will evoke emotional and physical responses. If the thought is one that plays a tape of an unpleasant past experience, fashions an image or a story that is troubling or builds a future of uncertainty, the autonomic system will be aroused. This happening over and over ensures that the system becomes more easily switched on and vigilant to a range of cues, even normal situations that can become threatening in some cases.
Feeling anxious is normal. It warns us that we need to place our attention upon the trigger and take the necessary action. Once this has been done, there is no need to continue to feel anxious, but often the association continues. Automatically there is a response to a thought, or waves of thoughts, and without control over this, the spiral continues. How can we gain control?
Mindfulness is a very potent way of tackling stress. The bodily feelings of stress are triggered by our perception of a situation being negative, risky, dangerous and somehow threatening to our beliefs about ourselves and our world. At the point where a thought or a situation prompts an automatic thought that is negative, these emerging from our belief system that has been evolving from a very young age, this propels us into greater suffering, pain, and sensitivity with increasing impact. Mindfulness practice refines the awareness of this process, maintaining a presence that prevents the dwelling upon the past or a leap into the future. Neither of these actually exist as they are constructs of our mind. The problem is the brain’s response to past or future thinking is very similar to actually being there — a lack of discrimination means that the same autonomic actions are triggered.
In the short-term, the autonomic responses are adaptive and useful. If they persist, the chemicals released over and over become problematic as certain systems are shut down due to the perception of danger. For example, the gut and reproductive system are not needed when we are escaping the clutches of a wild animal. But, similarly, chronic stress from an on-going negative assessment of a situation, thinking, will have the same effect. This is often a feature of infertility when the reproductive system is being impacted upon time and again.
The biological reality then, is that no matter what the situation, it is the individual interpretation that is key in determining what happens next. In developing mindfulness practice and emotional intelligence at the fulcrum point that is the automatic thought popping into consciousness, suffering, pain and on-going stress responses can be subdued and dissolved as presence and awareness rules over.