The anxiety survival guide
Most people have felt anxious at some point during their lifetime. For some, anxiety can be a new feeling, and for others it is something they have experienced since they were very young. Occasionally, anxiety can become acute and debilitating, impacting how a person functions in their everyday life. Some people find that the best treatment for anxiety is medication, and this is something that can be discussed further with a medical professional. However, there are some things that you can do for yourself to help reduce anxiety and its impact on your life.
The anatomy of anxiety
When our senses pick up something of threat to us, a part of our brain called the amygdala is activated. The amygdala is the primitive part of the brain which activates the fight or flight response. Once the amygdala is activated, it sends signals to our body which may result in:
- Large amounts of adrenaline being released.
- Racing heart.
- Digestive shutdown.
- Feeling nauseous.
- Sweaty palms.
- Increased blood pressure.
- Tightened muscles/muscle contractions.
- Contractions in the chest/throat – fear of not being able to breathe.
- Dilation of pupils.
- Excessive release of stomach acids.
- Catastrophic thoughts/black and white thinking.
All this happens before our conscious mind is aware that we are feeling anxious. The ‘rational’ part of the brain which is responsible for learning, rationalising and problem-solving (the pre-frontal cortex) cannot be accessed when the amygdala is at work. Therefore, we are unable to rationalise and put our experience of anxiety into perspective. And so, when we feel anxious, we tend to catastrophise and only think in extremes (black and white thinking).
How to reduce your anxiety
Name the anxiety
Studies have shown that putting feelings into words can reduce the physiological symptoms of anxiety. The more words that are used to describe the anxiety, the more likely the symptoms of anxiety will reduce. And so, it might be helpful to carry a notebook with you and write down how you are feeling, and what you might be feeling anxious about.
When we feel anxious our breath changes. Our breath becomes shallow and we start to breathe rapidly. Through this process of hyperventilating (over breathing) the lungs cannot expel the carbon dioxide, resulting in feeling out of breath. If the ratio of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels get out of the acceptable range, the brain will give out distress signals which may trigger off a panic attack.
One of the key things to do when feeling anxious or panicky is to breathe out the anxiety. A technique called the 7/11 breathing can help do this. In this technique, you:
1. Sit down and close your eyes.
2. Become aware of your breathing.
3. Breathe in for the count of seven, and then breathe out for the count of 11.
The important thing here, is that the out breath must be longer than the in breath; for example, you can breathe in for three seconds and breathe out for five seconds, whatever feels more comfortable for you. This kind of breathing stimulates the part of the nervous system responsible for relaxation and will give your body no choice but to relax – it is the basic law of biology.
You can also hold your breath for 10-15 seconds at a time or breathe in and out of a paper bag to regulate the carbon-dioxide and oxygen levels in your body.
Discharge the anxiety
An excess amount of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) are released during anxiety and panic. Therefore, doing short bursts of exercise like going for a brisk walk or doing star jumps can help dissipate these high levels of hormones within the body.
Use the aware technique.
Aware is an acronym for:
- Accept the anxiety and go with it. Do not try and fight it as that will stimulate the fight/flight response more.
- Watch the anxiety. This helps you stand outside yourself and observe it, without judging it.
- Act normal! Carry on doing what you intended to do. Staying in the situation de-conditions the panic response. Staying in the situation also shows your fear instinct that it does not need to label the situation as threatening.
- Repeat the previous three steps until the anxiety reduces.
- Expect the best. Expectation is a powerful tool! You are taking control of the fear instinct, taming it and training it.
Moving beyond your anxiety
You do not have to live with anxiety for the rest of your life. There are some basic changes that you can make in your life to reduce your anxiety and lead an anxiety free life. Anxiety is more easily triggered when we are stressed, and therefore it is important to relax and exercise regularly. Regular relaxation and exercise inhibit the production of stress hormones in the body, so it becomes harder for our bodies to panic. It is also important to eat a balanced and healthy diet reducing levels of alcohol, sugar and caffeine. Good quality sleep is also essential to combatting anxiety. Lastly, it might be helpful to write down some of the suggestions given in this article on your phone or on a card to carry around with you, so that you can access these prompts any time you need.
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About Neelam Zahid
Neelam is a BACP accredited Integrative Counsellor & Psychotherapist practising since 2003. She offers individual therapy, fast phobia & trauma treatment (Rewind Technique), Mindfulness courses and Transcultural Counselling training. Neelam has also contributed to 'The Handbook of Transcultural Counselling and Psychotherapy', 2011 (eds Colin Lago).