Many years ago, a friend installed an alarm system in her home. She had two dogs that were allowed to access an outdoor fenced-in area through a pet door. Each time one of the dogs would go through the pet door, the alarm was triggered. Eventually, the alarm's sensitivity was adjusted so the dogs could come and go freely without setting off a false alarm.
Our biological false alarm
We have a built-in alarm system, too. It’s called the amygdala and is located deep inside the brain. Sensing a threat, the amygdala fires off an alert to the hypothalamus. In response, the hypothalamus passes the urgent message on to our adrenal glands, instructing them to release norepinephrine (adrenaline). That surge of adrenaline increases our blood pressure and heart rate, slows down our digestion and immunity, and slows down the prefrontal cortex our brains. Our senses are sharpened as the whole body is placed on high alert in just seconds.
This entire process occurs so quickly that the conscious mind can’t keep up. Before we can evaluate the relative danger of a perceived threat, our body is already prepared to fight or run away. The flood of chemicals that protect us against danger short-circuit the part of the brain responsible for cognition. We can’t think. We can only react.
Sometimes, this life-saving system fires in the absence of a true threat to our physical safety. When it occurs frequently enough, this natural, protective response becomes counterproductive.
Turning off the alarm
Fortunately, our brains are also hard-wired with a shutoff valve. The same hypothalamus that tells our adrenals to release norepinephrine also sends messages to other organs to turn off this false alarm. The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) is responsible for turning on the relaxation response. Just like the fight-or-flight reaction, our relaxation response is an automatic process that does not require rational thought. It kicks in automatically based on certain feedback it receives from the rest of the body. As we vigilantly search our environment for danger and find none, those perceptions send feedback to the hypothalamus to turn off the alarm.
Have you ever felt an adrenaline rush? That’s your body’s alarm system working as it should. These sensations don’t last forever though. They slowly subside. That’s your HPA axis doing its job to bring your body back to normal after a perceived threat. We need our alarm system. It just doesn’t need to be firing 24/7.
Adjusting our alarm sensitivity
When someone has anxiety, this biological alarm system is programmed to over-react. Easing the symptoms of anxiety requires that we fine-tune our alarm. In order to do this, we must learn how to trigger the relaxation response intentionally.
Anything that slows down the heart rate, blood pressure, or respiration can turn on the HPA axis. For some, exercise is a good strategy. Practicing yoga or tai chi focuses the body on proper breathing and movement that activates the relaxation response. Meditation, biofeedback, progressive relaxation, and guided imagery all work, as well.
When we incorporate these practices into our daily lives, they become second nature. We can use these strategies to turn off those false alarms. Over time, the routine habits that naturally turn on the relaxation response begin teaching the brain to avoid setting off that alarm unnecessarily.