Reduced serotonin production, which occurs as a result of falling oestrogen in menopause, means you’re already feeling less happy, calm and coping. You live life more on the edge, emotionally speaking and chronic anxiety can become a problem.
Your primitive mind, understandably, associates those symptoms of increased sweat production, faster breathing, increased heartrate with danger…and triggers the fight, flight or freeze routine more easily.
Remember, your fear doesn’t have to be outright panic (though it can be). It can just be that repetitive worry about lockdown, Covid, family, work, weight, life, etc.
The more frequently it’s triggered, the more quickly you enter the vigilant state. Over time, what can occur is hypervigilance (anxiety). Hypervigilance simply means being on high anxiety alert – a lot.
In other words, your primitive mind continually monitors for evidence of danger. It mistakenly perceives that there is a risk of danger in all kinds of inappropriate moments and situations. It identifies the potential for risk around every corner.
There’s a reason we call this the primitive mind.
It’s a part of our brain that has been programmed to maintain our survival as a species…to be alert to signals of danger, so that we may act on them more quickly should they materialise.
The logical functioning part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex) is slow and takes too long over decisions. When you’re in danger, the last thing you need is to be weighing up options using this part of your mind. Instead, your primitive mind kicks in. The primitive brain is not clever, but it is fast.
It’s a little like the difference between the CEO and a fire officer. When there is no fire, the CEO is firmly in charge of making all the day-to-day decisions and long-term planning. No-one would question this. However, the moment fire breaks out in the building, you don’t message the CEO for ideas on what to do. Instead, everyone follows the instructions of the fire officer.
Decisions can wait. Action saves lives.
Now imagine yourself in your primitive cave. You hear a noise outside. Of course, it might be something low risk – a small animal, a bird or just the wind – but, by the same token, it could be a predator. There is the distinct possibility that danger is around the corner – literally.
So your primitive mind remains on high alert for further sensory information that will confirm whether there is danger or not.
It is listening acutely, observing closely, and preparing for the next step, should that danger be confirmed.
Your heart is racing, preparing for action, pumping blood and precious oxygen away from the brain and diverting to your limbs. Digestion is slowing (who needs to process a meal if there is a risk to life and limb?), your body is releasing adrenaline, and cortisol. All this allows you to run faster, fight harder or feel less pain.
You are entering the fight, flight, or freeze routine of your primitive mind. Imagine for a moment that, whilst in this state, you tip a jug of water all over yourself.
If the danger passes or is confirmed as not dangerous at all…the primitive mind stands down. It returns control to the logical, clear thinking part of your mind (your CEO) by returning blood flow and, therefore, oxygen to the prefrontal cortex, allowing you to think clearly again.
It switches off adrenaline and cortisol production, which is no longer required, and allows your brain and body to resume production of serotonin, to slow your heart rate and bring your mind and body back into what is known as homeostasis.
Sounds great, so how does this become a problem in your modern life?
To ensure your future safety, the brain stores this whole scenario, attaching every shred of sensory information it notices in the moment of fear. For example, what you could hear, the light, any physical sensations, any fleeting glimpse of something in the corner of your eye. Why? Because your brain wants to access this information FAST, the next time anything similar occurs – to kick start the reactive process even faster and more effectively than last time.
The only measure of success – and the guarantee of repeat episodes – is that you survived. You are still alive, so it will evaluate every response and trigger as appropriate for a re-run, whenever if finds a match.
But what you perceive as similar in your logical brain may not match what your primitive brain perceives as similar when it accesses the stored sensory memory.
Remember that your conscious logical brain wasn’t fully aware and functioning in the height of anxiety. It only picked up what happened before and what happened after.
On the other hand, your subconscious may have also stored the coincidental memory of being isolated, or feeling cold, or water (remember that jug?). So every single time it identifies a trigger associated with that first anxious experience, it kick-starts the same process of reaction.
This process gets more powerful over time.
The more your mind triggers the response, the more powerful it becomes and the more it morphs, like Chinese Whispers, attaching fresh new sensory inputs and situations that are ‘similar.’
And that is damaging for both your mind and your body.
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