Techniques for overcoming anxiety - mindfulness of breathing
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Greg Savva, Masters Degree, UKCP, Counselling in Twickenham & Whitton
10th December, 20130 Comments
To overcome intense emotions like anxiety, fear, stress, anger and panic attacks, you may like to try some practical techniques. To my mind, each of these psychological states begin with an arousal of the limbic system, which alerts the body and mind, priming it for a fight or flight response to protect you from imminent danger. The most common emotion we experience is anxiety. All of us will experience the unpleasant effects of anxiety at some point in our lives, often as a result of a personal crisis. Anxiety is a type of fear, but not a state of fear triggered by immediate and present danger – such as someone about to attack us. Anxiety is more of virtual state of fear, though it feels very real at the time. It is virtual, in the sense that it is triggered by traumatic memories from the past; or it is based on fantasies of catastrophic events in the future.
Immediate fear activates the limbic system in the brain, and causes instant chemical messages to be sent along our synapses in milliseconds, priming both the emotional and memory centres of the brain. In this aroused state the brain acts like an infra-red sensor triggered by movement, setting off an alarm and security mechanism. These chemical messages reach our pituitary gland, to release certain hormones – such as cortisol and adrenalin – which prime the heart to beat faster, and cause our breathing rate to rise with the increased flow of blood and oxygen to the body. At the same time, our motor neurones are alerted and our muscles primed for action. This is 'fight-or-flight' response. It is activated as a sensory experience in the body, and not simply a mental event in the mind. Once the danger has passed, new hormones like dopamine are released, causing deactivation by the parasympathetic nervous system, and thereby bringing about a state of inertia and relaxation.
Anxiety, however, is not the same as fear of an immediate danger. Anxiety is a response to anticipated events in the future, or a response to embedded painful memories of the past, that people believe might be repeated. Anxiety involves fear of a future event as if it were in the present moment, which is why it feels so real. It usually triggers a traumatic memory of the past in our deep subconscious, which is why it feels so out of control. It can also lead to overwhelming panic attacks. Anxiety is not based on current reality, but a projection of it. However, because the anticipated event is some way off in the future, the fear remains locked into the body and mind, unable to relieve itself. This is why it spins around and around in the mind, as a repetitive sequence of distorted beliefs and thoughts. And if the anticipated event doesn’t materialise, then rather than dissipate, the stress hormones keep us permanently primed like a coiled spring. Over time, this anxiety finds all sorts of ways to reinforce itself, feeding off its own energy, causing cycles of negative thinking and seeking ways to fulfil the prophecy and ensure the impending catastrophe materialises. Ironically, this is an attempt to bring relief, which never comes.
As such, anxiety does not follow the same psychological rules as ordinary fear. Usually, what happens is that the stress hormones remain trapped in the brain’s synaptic network, precisely because there is no way of releasing it. This is not the same as normal fear, since once immediate danger passes fear subsides. When anxiety primes the sympathetic nervous system and muscles for fight-or-flight, it causes tension, paranoia, pain and panic, but never allows our bodies and minds to find relief. This in turn leads us to feel we are being suspended in a state of hyper-vigilance – fearing the worst but not knowing when it will come. And because the threat is largely based on fantasy or triggered by traumatic reminders of the past, we rarely find relief. Instead, the cycle of anxiety is repeated again and again. Mindfulness is a way of responding to negative thoughts and stress that can bring about relief.
If you look at the exercise in Step 2, you will realise that mindfulness exercises can be used during a moment of stress or panic to relieve the symptoms of stress. It happens something like this. The stress hormones released into the blood, which increase heart-rate, keep the muscles primed and ready for action, as well as hyper-vigilance which increases anxiety levels. These symptoms are usually triggered unconsciously by the human 'fight-or-flight' response to fear. However, as humans we do have an opportunity to gain some relief from these stressors through conscious control of our sympathetic nervous system - such as controlled breathing to bring down the heart rate, regulate hormone production and anxiety levels by bringing about internal homoeostasis .
There is a way however, to relieve our fear. A simple technique which helps us focus on the present moment and relieve us from all intense and distressing emotions, especially anxiety. It is simple, but requires work and dedication to sustain it. It works by activating the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, to relive the anxiety and obliterate the thought process that keep us primed and locked. It can help you to intentionally change your inner states, and gain some mastery over them. The sympathetic nervous system is stimulated under stress, anxiety, fear and anger. It speeds up our heart rate, breathing and prevents digestion, keeping us tense, aroused and fearful. This also triggers negative feelings like anxiety or anger. Mindfulness activities such as ‘focussed-breathing’ stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system - bringing down our arousal levels, breathing and heart rates. Allowing us to relax the muscles, overcome the sense of anxiety, slow down our thoughts and find a more restful state of being.
Mindfulness is not a magic trick or a complicated set of techniques mastered by experts. It is merely something which requires some effort and practice, to develop in our everyday lives, not something you need to fret about. Let me give you an example:
Close your eyes, and ask yourself this simple question 'what is happening to me now?' Did you find yourself for one single moment turn inward and experience a moment of stillness, listening to the stirrings of your body and mind, becoming aware of physical sensations and stimuli?
If yes, then you have already found a degree of mindfulness
If not, then try the practice below.
To begin with, relax. Hold a reasonably straight posture, sitting with your back upright, and your head gently resting with your chin pointing slightly outward.
Start by closing your eyes and breathing normally. Gently find your own rhythm and settle on that. As you inhale, allow your diaphragm to be fully extended into your belly, and up again. Do not breathe too fast, too slow, too deep or too shallow. Repeat this again and again, listening to the sound of your breath, or paying attention to the sensation of your breath, as it moves from nostrils to throat, to lungs to belly and back up through the mouth. Continue inhaling and exhaling, while you turn your attention inward to the sensation of your breath. Stay with that awareness awhile (may be 5 minutes), as you inhale and exhale repeatedly. Do not invite any thoughts, or dismiss them begrudgingly. Gently allow your thoughts to bubble up to the surface of your mind, and disappear again without following them. As soon as you find yourself wandering or distracted, by trying to follow a train of thought, turn your attention back to the sensation of your breath and concentrate a little more, while remaining relaxed. You might find you struggle at first to maintain concentration, and not be distracted. You may even be tempted to give up as you struggle with the silence. Remain with it, and you should feel yourself begin to relax. Once you’ve settled, continue breathing normally before choosing your moment of reflection. Then, in the gap between the in-breath and the out-breath ask yourself this, 'what is happening to me now?' Try to remain with your embodied experience, physical sensations an emotions, rather than your thoughts. This will keep you in the present moment, staying with sensations as they arise and pass.
Repeat this every so often, and just notice without judgement or intolerance, what happens. Do not judge emotion or sensation as either good or bad, simply observe them. Allow yourself to experience your present state of being. Do not try to grasp it or hold onto it, just let it pass. Try to understand that nothing is permanent; that all things come to pass and change. Even intense emotions. You really can regulate how you feel without needing to control it or avoid feelings. At first, this practice may feel a little disorienting, or you might find yourself getting tangled up with distracting thoughts. Don’t worry. In time, if you persevere and focus on your breathing, you will begin to allow wayward thoughts to pass and remain focussed on a unified sense of experience as you breathe - somewhere between reflection and bodily sensation. Do not expect any sense of euphoria or enlightenment; just enjoy the simple gift of time and space to be – having a moment to yourself without suffering.
You see – it’s simple!
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