Anxiety has various manifestations. The common thread of anxiety are feelings of being both overwhelmed and disconnected. This is related to the neurological flight, fight and freeze nature of anxiety. In brief, an ancient part of our brain, which is a brain area even reptiles have, is the centre of fear and danger, amongst other things. This primal brain system is an absolute life saver. Its importance cannot be understated and neither can anxiety. Anxiety becomes problematic when it is disproportionate to the threat. The primal fight, flight, freeze system has become too sensitive and is being triggered when it is not needed.
Because the fear centre is a life-saving system of the brain, it acts within seconds when activated. One of the many things it does is shut down much of the newer, logical, information processing part of the brain.
When trying to manage panic attacks, it helps if the triggers can be identified before the fear centre of the brain kicks into action. Notice any triggers. Try to be aware of what is happening physically before a panic attack. Does your breathing get quicker? Does your heart feel as though it is beating faster? This is the point to manage a panic attack. The aim is to communicate with the fear centre of the brain, "thank-you for the security but I don't need you right now, this is a false alarm". The fear centre acts fast. One thing you can try if you have identified the symptoms of a possible panic attack, is to slow everything down. This is a strategy to try and manage panic attacks. It doesn't explore the cause of anxiety or prevent it. The cause and longer term management can be explored in therapy.
S - Speak. Say how you feel aloud. It can be simple: "I feel hot", "I feel breathless" or "I feel out of sorts". Keep that logical brain working and feelings and body connected.
L - Look at something. It can be anything in your line of vision. Describe what you see. Describe the colour, the shape and the texture. Again, this is to keep the logical brain working, to ground the self and stay connected to the moment and environment.
O - Open the body. Lift up your neck. Open out your chest and arms. Move the body in a direction opposite to the closed tense position of fear and panic.
W - Wait and wiggle. Take a deep breath and wait. Sit down wiggle your toes, wiggle your fingers. Check if you feel ready to continue with what you were doing. If you need more time, just wait a while longer.
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About Jacqueline Karaca
Jacquie Karaca is a psychotherapist and author. She practices individual and relationship counselling in Alsager.