I’d like to introduce you to a fictional patient named John Smith. He’s a 10-year veteran of LASD assigned to patrol. John’s passionate about his job and has a loving and caring family at home. If you ran into him at the station or in the field, you’d think that everything is great.
Unfortunately for John, over the past several months he has been experiencing chronic headaches, muscle tension, tenseness in his chest and chronic indigestion. John has been to his medical doctor and they’ve run a dozen different tests on him, only to find that there isn’t anything wrong with him. John is understandably confused and frustrated. What’s wrong with him? Is John sick, or is there something else going on?
I’ve met with several employees in very similar situations. Most people are quick to notice the physical signs and symptoms associated with anxiety. These often include increased heart rate, sweating, headaches, upset stomach, dizziness, shortness of breath, muscle tension, shaking or trembling, and insomnia.
People are quick to notice these symptoms because they are distressing, but the reality is that anxiety is triggered by our thoughts. For example, if you have a bad relationship with your supervisor, you might experience these symptoms when you have to speak to them or when you even think about going to work. When faced with these types of situations, we automatically tend to assume the worst. Our deepest fears and insecurities come to the forefront of our thoughts and our brains tend to fixate on them.
What do the following thoughts have in common? Do any of them sound familiar?
• “What if I get written up?”
• “Is my training officer going to yell at me?”
• “I’m not going to pass probation.”
• “I’m ruining my marriage.”
• “I’m going to lose my kids in this divorce.”
• “I’m a terrible parent.”
• “I’m not good at my job.”
All of these thoughts are negative, and they automatically assume the worst-case scenario. When people start to experience these types of thoughts, they tend to think in black and white rather than in shades of gray. There might be some truth to these statements, but it’s usually not as bad as they make it out to be. So why is it that these types of thoughts can cause us to have such intense physical reactions?
When you experience these types of thoughts, your body’s fight-or-flight system takes over. You experience psychological distress, so your brain thinks that you’re in danger and starts to prepare your body for a fight. Your body releases adrenaline and cortisol, which will elevate your heart rate and increase your breathing to provide oxygen-rich blood to the vital organs of your body. This process is actually adaptive and necessary in certain situations. A little bit of anxiety can help improve attention, concentration and performance. So when is this problematic?
The problem is that although this process can start very quickly, it takes a lot longer for your body to return to its relaxed state. You might notice your heart rate and breathing slow down after a couple of minutes, but cortisol can stay in your body for an extended period of time. In the immediate situation, cortisol is adaptive and helpful, but if it lingers over time, it can become problematic and cause the physical symptoms you are experiencing.
Now imagine this fight-or-flight cycle repeating day in and day out. As soon as your body starts to flush the hormones out, you might have another anxious thought and the cycle will repeat over and over again. This can be both psychologically and physically draining and lead to physical health issues if it persists long enough.
If you’re experiencing this cycle and would like to learn skills to get more control of your life, contact Psychological Services Bureau for a confidential consultation or appointment at (213) 738-3500. For more information, you can also visit our intranet site (http://intranet/intranet/ESS/Index.htm).