- Fascinating new research on anxiety and depression
- How your body communicates with your brain to avoid danger
- What your heartbeat can tell you about your ability to cope with stress
Odd question, but…
Can you feel your own heartbeat?
I don’t mean by taking your pulse or pressing your hand against your chest…
Can you feel it beating if you sit very still and quietly?
Your answer could be linked to your levels of anxiety – and your ability to cope with stressful situations.
This is the fascinating idea I’ve been reading about this week, prompted by a recent article by David Robson in The Guardian.
It was about how signals sent from your internal organs (e.g. heart, lungs, gut, bladder and kidneys) to your brain can play a significant role in regulating your emotions.
It’s known as ‘interoception’ – which, admittedly, sounds a bit like the title of a sci-fi blockbuster. But it’s actually on the cutting edge of the latest thinking about anxiety and depression.
Those with strong levels of interoception would be able to feel the rhythms of their heart… whereas those with weak levels might struggle to feel anything at all.
So why does that matter?
Well, I thought I’d give you quick rundown on what I’ve discovered…
How your body communicates with your brain to avoid danger
Most of what happens inside your body occurs on a subconscious level. Your brain is constantly operating complex internal processes without your mind being involved.
However, some sensations like clenching stomach, beating heart or muscle tension should be things your conscious mind can sense at certain times.
Being able to sense these things helps you recognise, and cope with, stressful situations.
Here’s an example…
Some years ago, I was in a quiet local railway station at night, talking on my phone while waiting for a train.
I noticed someone watching me from the opposite platform, while two young lads emerged on my platform.
I remember feeling in my gut that something was wrong – way before the thought entered my head that this was a potential mugging situation.
It was like an instinctive fear gripped my body.
It dawned on me that the three kids knew each other… and they definitely weren’t waiting for a train… and there was NOBODY else in the station.
That was when I realised I might be in trouble.
Immediately I said loudly on the phone “Yes, I’m on platform one, just come up and you’ll see me here,” and I marched past the lads, safely down the steps to the exit.
This is what happens in times of danger…
Your heartbeat accelerates and muscles tense before your brain recognises these signals and shapes your behaviour accordingly.
In other words, your brain and body communicate, your conscious mind assembles its thoughts and makes a decision.
This is how we evolved to have an ‘instinct’ for danger.
That’s the system working as it should – helping us interpret complex situations correctly and quickly.
Now, let’s think about everyday stress…
The daily anxieties that hurt us
As I’ve written about in this newsletter many times before, modern life is tough because of the constant drip feed of worries and stresses.
All the challenges of work, family life and friendships…
All the worries over money, health and lifestyle…
All our addictions and dependencies – from alcohol and sugar to social media and television.
And on top of that, the constant barrage of troubling news – weather disasters, global warming, Covid 19, wars, mass shootings and so much more, 24 hours a day.
We have a lot to deal with. So having an accurate natural stress response to these things is vital for our wellbeing.
This isn’t the case when people have poor interoceptive awareness.
Because they don’t ‘sense’ their body’s reactions, they are less able to correctly recognise, and respond to, stressful events or thoughts in a stable emotional way.
In the latest research, for instance, people with depression tended to show poorer interoceptive abilities. Scientists think that this lack of awareness of the body’s natural signals might be behind their sense of ‘feeling nothing at all’.
When people can’t detect those gut instinct signals, they can feel emotionally detached from the world.
In contrast, some people with acute anxiety DO feel their body’s signals but interpret them wrongly – thinking that a rising heat beat is a sign of something catastrophic and going into a panic about it.
How to connect with your body’s secret signals
This one’s not so simple to solve but there are a few natural therapies being touted for people with poor emotional responses.
For instance, Professor Cynthia Price from the University of Washington in Seattle is testing a programme where patients with addiction problems learn to detect and feel their internal sensations.
So far she has shown that this therapy reduces symptoms of depression and cravings.
She says: “These skills should be helpful for anyone, regardless of whether they have a health condition.”
However, one of the simplest things you can do to improve your natural stress response is to start exercising.
Professor Hugo Critchley at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School has been researching interoception and says:
“If you’re deconditioned from a lack of exercise, you’re more likely to experience symptoms that you might associate with anxiety. Your heart will race more when you experience challenges – be it physical or emotional.”
If you get fitter, your organs get stronger and feel less strain when the stress response kicks in.
This means your brain is less likely to hit the panic button when you’re confronted with a difficult thought or situation.
Anyway, it’s fascinating stuff, and if I can find out more, I’ll get the info into a future letter.
Have a great weekend!