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Perception of Control with Anxiety

By Jodi Cohen

A woman sits at a desk in a home office setting, eyes closed, and holding her hands in a meditative pose. She is wearing a pink striped shirt over a white top. A laptop and a book are on the desk, and large windows in the background let in natural light.

I hope your new year is off to a healthy start!

Many of my loved ones have shared feelings of heightened anxiety at the start of the new year, in part due to some unexpected challenges over the holiday season related to weather and travel that left them feeling powerless and anxious about making future plans, including new plans in 2023.

While we have no control over external variables like weather and airline decisions, we always have control over how we interpret and respond to unpredictable situations and challenges.

External events do not need to be disruptive and disabling — You can change the perceptions and control how you live your day.

Accepting the unpredictability of life and letting go of the need for control helps you approach the unknown in a healthy, supportive way that helps limit anxiety.

Essential oils can be a powerful tool to help you better handle challenges, put the brakes on worry and increase your resilience, flexibility and optimism.


Anxiety as Perception of Risk

Anxiety is the natural response to danger. It alerts you to potential threats in the environment and impels you to take action.  This is what makes anxiety difficult to ignore.

When your brain perceives a threat, it assesses the environment for responses to two quick questions:

  1. How big of a threat is it?
  2. Can I manage it or avoid it?

Your level of anxiety matches how significant you perceive the threat or danger to be, as well as how confident you are in your ability to cope with the perceived threat.

If you perceive a threat and evaluates the danger as high risk and your ability to cope is low, your anxiety soars.

When you are unable to lower the risk, you can always improve your coping ability and thus improve your response which may allow you to feel less anxious.

Activating your parasympathetic nervous system and enhancing your resilience and ability to respond to stress helps to enhance your coping mechanism which in turn reduces your level of anxiety and overwhelm.


Overestimating Risk

You may be more likely to overestimate risk when you are afraid.

Research on emotion and decision making finds that we all hold “cognitive biases”, meaning that when something bad happens, we tend to overestimate the likelihood that it will happen again.

What’s more, emotions like fear have been associated with greater pessimism and feelings of unpredictability about the future as well as lower feelings of self-control.

While the future is unknown and “no one escapes” meaning that at some point everyone will experience some heartache, loss or disappointment, you always have the capacity to expand your tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

In other words, your sense of security can come from within, regardless of what is happening externally. This internally sense of security allows you to accept ambiguity and support your ability to manage whatever life throws your way!

You can always control how you steer your thoughts and perceptions in ways that will change both how you feel and how you behave; you are always the one in the driver’s seat of your life.


Anxiety Activates Your “Fight or Flight”

Anxiety not only alerts you to a potential danger but also prepares you for action to facilitate your survival, turning on your sympathetic “fight or flight” response.  Your body reacts biologically (your physical response), cognitively (your accompanying perceptions and thoughts), and behaviorally (your actions) —all in response to a perceived threat.

In the body, signals are sent to the adrenal glands to release adrenalin, increasing your heart rate and converting glycogen to glucose for energy; your facial expressions change, alerting others; your muscles tense and your respiration rate increases, preparing you to fight or flee.

On the cognitive side, your pupils dilate, bringing in more visual information; and you begin to retrieve memories of similar situations from the past, allowing you to select the best course of action.

In regard to your behavior, anxiety organizes your priorities (it’s very hard to think about anything but your safety when a bear is staring at you) and motivates you into goal-directed action (to address the risk).

Anxiety helps you quickly organize your priorities, focus your attention, and prepare to respond.

When you calms your anxiety, you are better able to clearly discern your best options in responding to or influencing events that fall outside of your control.


Perception of Influence Determines Anxiety Level

Your perception of your ability to influence a situation determines the level of anxiety you feel.

When you perceive yourself as helpless (important outcomes are out of our control), you are more likely to become anxious. When you recognize that you can influence events and control how you think about them, your anxiety often is reduced.

Research conducted on people who experienced panic attacks (severe and unexpected surges of anxiety) asked them to self-induce panic attacks by inhaling a gas that would be administered through masks they wore. They were told they could control the level of the gas by turning a knob whenever a light was illuminated on a control panel at their desks. For half of the participants, the light turned on and they could adjust the gas; not surprisingly, they experienced few panic attacks.

For the others, the light didn’t turn on, the gas flowed, and they were battered by panic attacks. Moreover, they rated their symptoms as more intense, experienced higher levels of anxiety, and reported a greater number of catastrophic thoughts.

Being able to control the gas allowed participants to control the panic.

Both groups of participants received the same high level of gas and the knobs did nothing. They didn’t regulate the flow of gas. The only real difference between the groups was whether the light came on.

The difference between the people who experienced surging anxiety and those who didn’t was their perception of control—that is, the belief that they could influence the situation.


Parasympathetic Tone Shifts Perceived Stress

The key to regulating anxiety is regulating your nervous system.

Your perception of stress — or the degree to which situations in your life are perceived as stressful — and stress reactivity shifts as your nervous system regulates.

You can quantify perceived stressors using the Perceived Stress Scale to assess how unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overloaded you feel your life to be.

Building parasympathetic tone supports your ability to calm both over-reaction and under-reaction so that you can regulate emotions and calm emotional states like anxiety, depression and other mood imbalances.

Improving your parasympathetic tone is believed to help increase your capacity for stress by regulate your set point, or threshold where a mole hill begins to feel like a mountain

Research has found that vagus nerve stimulation decreases stress reactivity and anxiety-like behavior.  More specifically, the Journal of Integrative and Complementary Medicine found that directly stimulating the vagus nerve increases parasympathetic tone leading to an improvement of autonomic regulation, cognitive functions, stress management and mood enhancement.

Essential Oils for Parasympathetic Tone

Your vagus nerve can be stimulated to turn on the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. The more you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, the more you build parasympathetic tone to help regulate anxiety.

Topically applying stimulatory essential oils, like Parasympathetic®, behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone can stimulate the vagus nerve where it is most accessible to the surface of the skin to increase parasympathetic tone.

We recommend applying Parasympathetic® to the vagus nerve three times daily, ideally before meals.

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About The Author

Jodi Cohen

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.