Thoughts And Memories Sustain Anxiety

Thoughts And Memories Sustain Anxiety

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Things we want to remember often get buried deep under the debris of forgetfulness. Things we want to forget often glare in our face and refuse to get out of our sight. Such is the "stuff" we humans are made of.

Severe anxiety is unfortunately one item among the unwanted stuff. The more one tries to forget an experience that caused fear or severe discomfort, the stronger the memory of it becomes. When people suffer from recurring panic attacks or from a specific phobia such as that of height, bridges or highways, they usually don't think of a specific memory or thought as the real culprit behind their predicament, but there often is one.

I have worked with hundreds of people who suffered from phobias and panic attacks. Many of them had been on anxiety pills for years with limited relief. We have usually been able to identify the circumstances when they first experienced severe discomfort or a panic attack in a specific situation. They were experiencing some sort of impasse or a highly frustrating and challenging situation in their lives.

I have come to believe that long-term ongoing severe stress creates a certain kind of physiology, which, in turn, creates negative thoughts such as those pertaining to anger, frustration, helplessness, powerlessness, being suffocated or simply "getting stuck."

Understand that my explanation is an oversimplification of what might happen in the body and the unconscious mind. Whatever happens results from a combination of high-stress physiology and negative thoughts as mentioned above.

Once the frightening experience such as of choking, shaking, trembling, heart racing, hot flashes, cold chills or dizziness occur, a specific memory is created.

The body and the mind from then on will remember that specific physiological state, along with specific thoughts related to that situation. Such a combination will drive the disorder by reacting to everything that appears close to the original experience.

In my first meeting, when I ask people about their fist panic attack or frightening experience, they often remember the physical symptoms of that frightening experience but not the specific thoughts or circumstances. But that does not mean they have really forgotten then.

The body remembers it, though the mind may not. Interestingly, when they begin to get better in therapy, one day the memory flashes. When that memory is consciously retrieved, that itself gives a boost to the process of recovery.

Usually, people are aware that they have dreams while sleeping, whether they remember them or not. Likewise, we think but we may not be aware of our thoughts. It sounds so weird, doesn't it? The psychological truth is that even when we are wide awake, we are not always aware of what exactly we are thinking or recalling from our life experiences.

So the road to recovery from the grips of a panic disorder or phobia involves becoming aware of the specific thoughts, memories, experiences and stressful circumstances so we can begin to change them. It is important because if you don't know your "enemy," you can't fight it. With just a little training, anyone can become good at "catching" those thoughts and memories, the enemy of their peace of mind.

Thereafter, the person has to venture out into situations similar to the original and thus create new memories and thoughts. Of course, it has to be a gradual and carefully orchestrated venture so one can avoid increasing the intensity of the old negative thoughts and memories.

So far, we have discussed the psychological stuff such as the thoughts and memories. How does an anxiety pill fit into all this? A pill may temporarily change the physiology, that high anxiety state and make it possible for the anxious individual to venture out into an erstwhile fearful situation and thus create new memories and thoughts.

Unfortunately, many people fail to improve because they keep on avoiding the situations that created the bad experiences and memories for them. Because of such avoidance, they never get to unlearn the fear. If a person simply cannot stand even the slightest exposure to a phobic situation, chemical treatment should be combined with psychological work.

There is another tool one can use to alter the anxiety physiology. The name of that tool is "vigorous aerobic exercise."

Researchers at the university of Missouri-Columbia have found that even low to moderate intensity workouts immediately reduce the level of anxiety and stress. But, high intensity workouts lower the anxiety and stress levels even better. In addition to the reduction in stress and anxiety levels, participants in the study felt healthier and more energized.

The psychological benefits of the vigorous exercise lasted from 30 to 90 minutes. Therefore, one has to do better than exercising only once or twice a week.

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Copyright 2004, Mind Publications 
Posted January 2004


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