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Several weeks ago I got an e-mail from a psychiatrist running an evidence-based mental health self-help website called Open Forest. The e-mail said that they were working on articles focused on anxiety, which is going to be their theme for November. And as he was browsing the net he had stumbled upon one of my older posts. And he kindly asked me to consider adding a link to Open Forest site, either in a blog post or sticky on the overview page.

And you know me - I have a tendency to take the word 'to consider' rather seriously. So, among other things I was considering this; Strictly speaking, does it mean that they are going to include a link to my post in their index of anxiety related blogs posts? Or is it just that he is looking for personal blogs related to mental health, asking me to post a link to their site (as probably some of my readers would be interested in their site, plus they get free visibility). For a moment I was hit by a kind of internet paranoia: is this a real person posting, or a very clever bot spamming customized messages all over the internet? - hehe, I realized such a degree of paranoia is likely to be a symptom of anxiety =) Well, what I did was to reply to the e-mail, asking some questions to clarify my thoughts.

They replied quickly (which, I think, proves it was a real person reading and replying, not some wicked AI-bot fishing for bloggers willing to post links to their site). It turned out that they hadn't been thinking of posting a link to my blog post (which kind of a leaves us with them asking me to consider posting a link to their site; free visibility for them, as anyway their site offers both free-to-read content and then subscription-based self-help modules. After all, they are making money with their site, and the more visitors the better for them. Okay? Is there a honest reason for me to promote their site which I know very little of? I haven't taken their self-help modules so I'm in no position to recommend them for anyone. Then, on the other hand - who am I to judge? I have no evidence to suspect that their self-help modules are mere money-making machines. And, generally speaking, I like the idea that there is a wide variety of self-help available, and taking an internet course would fit some people far better than going to talk face-to-face with a mental health professional.) And they kindly welcomed that they do publish guest blogs, if I feel like writing to their site. (which made me consider further; I'm offered an opportunity to write for a potentially bigger audience, there's a change that what I write might actually help someone struggling with similar kind of issues - but then on the other hand, what would I write about if I was to post to their site? Would I write about why I personally have never been that interested in reading self-help stuff?)

Oh well, it is mid-November. I haven't yet posted them a guest blog. But here I'm finally writing a blog post about anxiety, which offers me fluent context to post a link to their site. Here it is, again: Open Forest. I leave it open for my audience to give feedback. If any of you think that their site was interesting and helpful for you, please send me feedback. Be there any positive feedback and I'll include their site in the 'see also these' box. (And for anyone reading this later on - there's no expiration date to this. Feel free to send feedback about this, even if it happens to be months or years since this was first posted.)

Hehe, but finally to the actual subject matter; anxiety. To put it shortly, typical to anxiety is a sense of being under threat, without any reasonable reason. But an anxious mind if quick to see a lot of reasons the feel threatened. A random noise on the front-door - is it robbers? burglars? assasins? the secret service coming to take me away? Feeling itchy what's wrong with me? Maybe I have a cancer? Melanoma! I'm going to die!. Nice clear blue sky oh it is so suspiciously okay, it is hiding something, there's probably a cruise missile coming my way, or something, an unnamed shapeless eerie danger looming!. To a certain degree this kind of reactions are normal, and I'd suppose they serve an evolutionary purpose - false alarms are better than failing to react to a real threat. But constant anxiety can easily become overwhelming and paralyzing. One needs to spend a lot of extra energy to get daily things done while coping with the sense of immediate catastrophe looming.

Years ago my own anxiety was a lot stronger, and nowadays I'm still sometimes hit with a mild echo of anxiety. So, apparently, things have gotten a lot better for me. What has helped for me? Let's first take a look at anxiety the way I experienced it. It was early years of me living in this house. It was winter, I got tired of washing my hands with ice-cold water, so I decided to finally connect the old electric water boiler. A relatively simple task, which I knew I can do. But as I started to work, an increasing sense of fear and panic crept up my spine - make a mistake and the whole house will be flooded with water! Erkka you are a stupid idiot you can't do this kind of things! Why are you doing that wrong! Nah calm down I know I can do this yes yes yes but your older brother or your father or just someone will turn up any moment and start yelling at your for doing it wrong!. Of course my rational mind knew that I'm alone at home and realistically speaking no-one is coming to yell at me. My rational mind managed to contain the panic and I got the work done without any severe mistakes. But, mere rationalization didn't make the anxiety go away, it only helped me cope with it for a moment (which, of course, is highly valuable, I'm not to deny that).

But to get to the roots of anxiety? I can easily trace my memories back to childhood - how, by experience, I effectively learned to associate certain kind of manual work with being yelled at. Things like cutting with scissors, or fastening a bolt got deeply associated with a sense of aggression and mocking and threat. Okay so now I need to unlearn that association? But how and where in the human system is that association stored? If it got wired somewhere deep in the brain, how to rewire those connections?

There's been a growing amount of scientific studies about processes involved in anxiety and post-traumatic stress-disorder. And many of those studies come with evidence that it is not all in the brain. That there is a lot of physiological bodily reactions involved in how trauma is stored in the human system. There's the stellate ganglion, located where your neck meets the first ribs. There's the epigenetic coding, altering the way DNA is read and utilized. There's the adrenaline glands. And the digestion, gut bacteria and the vagus nerve. And the immune system. Recently a friend on facebook posted a link to a study of the role of spleen in prolonged anxiety. To put it short; a prolonged sense of threat (ie. stress) contributes towards more and more immune cells being stored in the spleen. And even when the external threats are gone, the stockpile of immune cells remain in the spleen. That seems to send the brain a signal that something is wrong, alerting the brain to react to the looming threat. Sounds like anxiety? Even when there is no rational reason to panic, just about any random sensory input triggers a bodily fight-or-flight reaction, a sense of being under threat. So, the spleen seems to act like a 'stress memory'. (Sorry, at the moment of writing this I'm too lazy to post links to those other physiological processed mentioned. If someone is interested for more details, just ask and I'll try to write separate entries about epigenetic coding or the basal ganglia etc).

So what about all that physiology? If it is bodily functions, there's a little our conscious mind can do about it? The spleen is not under my direct voluntary control, I can't just decide "OK, now it is time to discharge that abundance of white cells stored in my spleen". Well, sure it might not work that straight-forward. But we should remember that if the spleen originally reacted to events perceived stressing by the conscious mind, then it probably means that some other kind of experiences might trigger the spleen to reset it's stress memory by discharging the excess of white cells. And that, I'd guess, can mean a wide variety of experiences. I'd guess it is things like these why primitive ritual healing might work; maybe tribal drumming and shamanistic chanting causes the spleen to react? I don't know if or how much there are studies about this kind of stuff =) Anyhow, for me it has been both things like dancing alone, and my 'sleepy meditation' - those moments when it feels like my conscious mind gets toned down, I lay eyes closed on the sofa, tripping deep in the realm of nearly shapeless bodily memories, feeling my deep muscles slightly trembling then relaxing a bit, or feeling some of my internal organs doing something I don't know what they are doing but it just gives a sensation of energetic whirlpools running inside my body - I'd guess it has something to do with hormone secretion. If I had an access to a science lab, it would be interesting to measure all kinds of bodily variables - for example, if there's a difference in the amount of white cells in the spleen before and after a sleepy weekend =)

Anyhow, for me it has been a long process, based a lot more on my own experimentation instead of reading self-help literature. Maybe things would've been easier and quicker for me if I were better in following a schedule, better at sticking at a program. That way I could maybe adopt some self-help method to see if it helps when practised regularly. But I'm not that good in anything like that =)

Erkka goes 'The Scream'
Erkka goes 'The Scream'
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