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Anxiety and Counselling (2017)

Anxiety is a personal topic of interest for me because as a martial arts instructor, sports psychologist for a national team and a counsellor for a number of years, anxiety has been a huge factor in performance. Composure under pressure is a topic that I have taught to a wide range of people, from normal everyday individuals to the armed forces, law enforcement, security operatives, professional athletes and even actors. Regardless of a situation, dangerous or not, anxiety plays a huge part in how we deal with it.


Anxiety is a general term used to describe feelings of fear, unease and worry, which is a mechanism activated when we are faced with stressful situations. Such activity is natural and occurs frequently. Anxiety may become more of a problem for us when we begin to worry regularly and excessively as well as panic attacks. Anxiety disorders occur even during normal times that are not distressing or be magnified tremendously in situations that place a lot of pressure on an individual. Anxiety can arise from situations such as sitting in an exam, job interviews, starting a new job and physical confrontations, to name a few. According to Wright (2017), the amygdala is the part of the brain that is associated with 'emotions, behaviour, motivation', which Bailey (2017) corroborates and states that the amygdala is involved with 'autonomic responses associated with fear'. Memories for emotional and traumatic experiences can be long lasting, which through conditioning and ‘socialisation’, fear is learned; even a sound can become associated with the danger, which Bears, Connors and Paradiso (2016) have appropriately labelled the ‘neural circuit for learned fear’, which is mediated by the amygdala.


When we are relaxed, we engage the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) when the amygdala does not detect any threat. Our breathing and our overall composure is relaxed. The PNS also engages our digestive system (Impellizzeri, 2012). Only when there is threat or perceived threat, does the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activate; the amygdala sends out a message to the hypothalamus, which can produce physical reactions through the change of nervous system to the SNS, such as increased heart rate, more laboured breathing, ‘bladder control and the fine hairs on the skin standing on end’ (Wilson, 2014). The SNS disengages the digestive system, so any food eaten will not be digested; this can often be the reason why an individual suddenly feels sick when under pressure. Hyperventilation maintains the SNS engagement; deep breathing in contrast can re-engage the PNS, even when we are under pressure (Knapton, 2017).

Often I will ask someone to be conscious of their breathing when they are relaxed, to which brings their attention to the breathing, which is something they would take for granted. I would then ask them to compare it to a time when they were experiencing feelings of anxiety, to which they were very aware that their whole body braces up, where they either take very shallow breaths, or do not breathe at all. From the above, we are now aware of what is happening physiologically. The old saying ‘you’re not you when you’re hungry’ in principle can be adapted to ‘you’re not you when you’re anxious’. When one is hungry, nourishment is required; therefore, when one is anxious, deep breaths can be more than beneficial. When dealing with my students and clients, particularly those starting out in dangerous jobs such as security, the ability to act and compose oneself under pressure is a concern. A potentially dangerous situation can cause us to freeze up; the periaqueductal grey (PAG), which is connected to the hypothalamus (Bergland, 2014), is associated with responses where we can either take flight or the 'ride' the adrenaline rush to fight. In many cases, we simply freeze, much like that of a deer crossing the road. This trait is common in people also, for instance, the fear of performing in front of a camera, which may no longer feel natural and somewhat contrived; the fear of our we will be ‘judged’ through observation (In Quantum Mechanics, it is no secret that even particles act differently when observed). It is also common that over-thinking causes us to freeze up instead of acting and reacting, which is known as paralysis through analysis. Conscious deep breathing, essentially breathing the way one does when one is relaxed in distressing situations can often return our physical faculties back to us. As a martial arts instructor, I could teach hundreds of self defence techniques, though without learning the ability to calm oneself down, learning a million movements would be obsolete. Capable individuals expressing abilities to a high level in training does not necessarily translate to real life situations, essentially knowing the techniques of how to swim without ever being in the water; the reality is always different.

Meditation can help with this also, being conscious and aware of surroundings as well as sensory perceptions and breathing, facilitating one to remain calm. In the heat of the moment, we either say things we will later regret, or forget many salient points we could have said. Maintaining composure under pressure allows us to retain and utilise more abilities than we would otherwise have if we were to respond in accordance with fear and / or aggression. Unfortunately, what may occur should we have a negative experience that is not addressed or resolved is a form a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), can develop, which can cause problems later on. Due to the nature of PTSD, it may cause an individual to avoid facing new situations completely and thus, reinforcing neural pathways that enable this evasive behaviour.


All emotions originate from how we experience a situation or an event, how our bodies respond to it as well as how we then express it. Fascinatingly enough, anxiety and excitement are in fact very similar neurologically; 'the difference is in our interpretation' (Veny, 2017). The anxiety ‘mechanism’ cannot be removed as such, but redirected as both anxiety and excitement exhibit feelings of arousal. Mintz (2011) regards this as 'reframing', which is entirely possible to create and reinforce new neural connections due to brain plasticity.  Garms (2014) defines reframing as the means of changing 'our ways of interpreting things and trying to find alternative ways of viewing ideas, events, situations and motives'. As our brains can literally be moulded, it is entirely possible for anxiety to be automatically reframed to excitement.

Being mindful and aware of our thoughts can be an excellent technique also to prevent free floating anxieties that cause us to spiral down. My personal favourite is an analogy where each thought equates to £1. If I think 50,000 thoughts a day, it would equate to having £50,000. If I were to spend £50,000 on things that make me unhappy, most would consider me crazy; instead, I will choose to spend £50,000 on things that make me happy. Our thoughts should be regarded in a similar fashion, where we are conscious of how we spend them; it is therefore important to spend our thoughts as wisely as we would be advised to spend our money.

Over the years, research has surmised that the average brain can have up to 50,000 thoughts a day or more of which 70% of them are negative (McKanzie, 2016). To put this into perspective, 70% of £50,000 is £35,000, which is the monetary amount that would be spent on detrimental thoughts a day. As an analogy, this shows an excessive amount of money, which I have found to be useful in advising others.


With regards to counselling, understanding neurological and physiological effects is essential for what is actually happening inside us. Explaining the ins and outs of this to clients who do not have a background in such disciplines may put them off. Instead, it can be extremely beneficial to explain in simpler terms, so that a solution can also be devised in a simpler way. Often, providing examples of best practice and analogies can facilitate an individual's ability to understand and contextualise what is being said by the counsellor to be more relevant, more practical and therefore more achievable. The analogy used above regarding the comparison of thoughts and money is powerful example as it helps to truly visualise thoughts in a more tangible way. Regular encouragement can promote brain plasticity to work in a client’s favour, establishing new connections where s/he is able to become more independent; this is one of the biggest goals within counselling. Helping a client acknowledge the benefits of change in addition to forming a plan to achieve this is a steady way of ensuring progress, not just for anxiety.


Having worked with competitive athletes who have anxieties over their next match, to law enforcement officers worrying over how a situation may play out, to an actor’s stage fright and even to a fear of public speaking all invoke the same neurological and physiological factors within us. The dangers may be very real, but how we handle it can become a choice if we know how. If we are able to handle ourselves under distressing situations, we will always have an influence over the outcome of the situation.



Bears,M.F., Connors, B.W., & Paradiso, M.A. (2016) Neuroscience Exploring The Brain. Fourth Edition. China: Wolters Kluwer

Garms, E. (2014) The Brain-Friendly Workplace. United States of America: ASTD Press

Impellizzeri, S. (2012) Why Can't I Change? How to Conquer Your Self-Destructive Patterns. United States of America: Sunrise River Press

Wilson, R.Z. (2014) Neuroscience for Counsellors. United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Publications


Bailey, R. (2017) Amygdala [ONLINE]

Available from:

(Accessed 11th September 2017)

Knapton, S. (2017) Deep breathing calms you down because brain cells spy on your breath [ONLINE]

Available from:

(Accessed 11th September 2017)

McKanzie, C. (2016) Average Brain Has Up To 50,000 Daily Thoughts And 70% Of Them Are Negative [ONLINE]

Available from:

(Accessed 11th September 2017)

Mintz, L. (2011) Beating the Odds: Reframing Anxiety as Excitement [ONLINE]

Available from: (Accessed 11th September 2017)

Wright, A. (2017) Chapter 6: Limbic System: Amygdala [ONLINE]

Available from: 

(Accessed 11th September 2017)

Veny, M. (2017) Are Anxiety and Excitement the Same? [ONLINE]

Available from: 

(Accessed 11th September 2017)

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