A very long time ago, Bob, a caveman, lived with other cave-people in a rock-walled dwelling carved into the the side of a mountain. Bob was strong and independent, and saw himself as a very capable provider.
Bob sometimes worried about having enough food for his family and tribe. He also worried about getting sick, or eaten, or falling off a cliff. But most of Bob’s worrying was short-lived, as he rarely had time to dwell on much. His life was about action- eat, sleep, and hunt. Worry was a luxury he simply had no time to indulge.
Whatever caused Bob stress was likely to be a danger that was sudden and imminent. His cortisol levels spiked when needed, causing a flood of adrenaline to make him more alert and responsive to his environment. The rush of chemicals to his brain propelled him into action- fight or flight- and dissipated once the danger had passed. This automated action response saved Bob’s life many times, as sitting still would probably have been the end of him.
We are all Bob’s children. We have inherited his chemical and neurological wiring. We are programmed to respond to dangerous threats with automated action.
Often times folks with dementia have some degree of anxiety that may come and go, or be a persistent hinderance to a good quality of life. These folks may demonstrate psychomotor agitation (physical restlessness) or fear-based resistance to people, processes, or things in the environment. This person may be trying to find the cause of the anxious feelings or perceived threat, but lacks the cognitive function to rationalize through it. As they try to form the perfect escape plan, they pace and rock and wring their hands until enlightenment strikes. Or they may be frozen with fear, and feel like sitting ducks. But we instinctually understand that sitting still is NOT the answer. Movement is.
Our environments are nothing like Bob’s. There is little need for physical exertion in the modern world- no predators, no scarcity of food, no nomadic activity. There is a profound disconnect between our brains and bodies, especially when it comes to managing perceived threats. Bob put his anxiety to use. But we wallow in a surplus of wasted adrenaline.
Even when dementia is not a factor, anxiety consumes us.
Unfortunately, we don’t move so well anymore. We are too heavy for our joints, and our flabby hearts can’t keep pace with the effort of movement. And even more than that, we don’t know what to do with that pesky, uncomfortable sensation we call anxiety. So we sit, and feel restless and uncomfortable all the time. We are painfully aware of some non-existent yet impending danger, and the dichotomy tears us in two.
So we sit. We opt for convenience so as to avoid any further stress… and we pop a pill to make it all go away.
Stress management is no joke. Mindfulness is a way to view your body’s response to stress (anxiety) from the driver’s seat. Pay attention to your breathing. Feel the impulses of anxiety rise and fall, and work on controlling your physical response to them. Recognize exactly where you are and your body’s resting state at this moment. Then be like Bob and move!
What worked for Bob will work for you. It’s how you were designed. Dealing with anxiety through movement doesn’t require much conscious effort- actions are largely reflexive, preprogrammed, and sensory seeking. They require an interaction with the environment and a relearning of what our bodies are capable of doing. Bob’s environment, mostly outdoors and natural, had dynamic elements that our indoor, manmade shelters lack.
So the next time anxiety strikes, go hug a tree. Literally.
Push, pull, lift, carry, climb, swing, reach, and rotate. Work up a sweat. Get your heart pumping. Deal with your stress with physical exertion.
And if someone you know has anxiety associated with dementia, allow him or her the same opportunities. Movement is free, and natural, and needed.