Blind panic and anxiety spikes
We’ve all been there. In that moment of blind panic - your heart pounding; shortness of breath; intense and overwhelming feelings of fear for no apparent reason, quickly followed by an endless cycle of ruminating thoughts and catastrophic worrying. Then, avoiding everything at all costs - fighting only with yourself.
But is it normal? And is there something you can do about it?
The short answer is yes, but it’s a learning process and you have to remain engaged throughout. Continuous practice is vital, even when you’re not anxious. Learning to self-regulate emotions on 'training-day' is always better than haphazard interventions on 'match-day'.
It sounds like a lot of work, but you already have everything you need; you just have to learn how to use it more effectively. You will need: your body, your breath, your five senses, and your ability to focus on the present moment. It’s not easy to engage mindfully at first: you’ll fight it, you’ll doubt yourself, as well as facing moments of frustration and empowerment in equal measure. That’s just part of the process - learning how to accept what is already there, without trying to change it.
You will fail, you will learn from experience and bounce back again - stronger and more resilient.
First of all, anxiety is not simply a state of mind. It's not all about the thoughts in your head. Anxiety creates stress in the body with a highly-charged mix of neurochemicals like cortisol, adrenalin, dopamine, and noradrenalin. It's all part of the 'flight and flight response' - putting you on high alert and sensitive to everything in close proximity - but more often people respond to anxiety by freezing, avoiding situations, and feeling powerless to act.
Most people are 'avoid' animals: they are risk-averse, they avoid confrontation, and ignore their feelings until it’s too late. They try to please others and sacrifice their boundaries in the process. They don’t know how to be assertive, or say 'no'. Some people are fight animals, but in the end anger gets the better of them. It eats them up inside. While the chemicals that trigger anxiety do not go away by themselves, burying them, or trying to shut-down, only delays the inevitable. If you’ve learned to avoid difficult situations, or detach yourself from your feelings, you will get temporary relief, but just when you think it’s gone away, anxiety strikes back. It quietly builds-up in the shadows and rebounds even harder, until eventually you snap.
Most people have learned from childhood to ignore, control or dismiss the symptoms of anxiety. They may rationalise their fears, seek to distract themselves in work, or even deny the signs are there. But if you really want to own the process of recovery, you must learn to acknowledge anxiety, accept it's already there and learn to adapt by discharging your anxiety through practice.
Four pillars of good practice
You are likely to have anxiety if you experience these symptoms once triggered;
- heart palpitations or irregular heartbeat
- constriction of the throat, windpipe, and tightness around the chest
- panic attacks and shortness of breath
- a feeling of urgency for no apparent reason
- tight knots in the gut or tummy
- stitches and muscles cramps or nervous tics
- sweaty palms and forehead
- dry eyes, nose, and mouth
- bodily spasms or twitching
First, slow down whatever activity you are doing. Pause, then stand still with your legs apart, or sit upright with a balanced posture or lie down flat on a bed. Turn your attention to your breath - in and out. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. Try to slow down with each new in-breath and let go of the tension in your body with the out-breath. Deepen your breath, but naturalise your breathing, letting the breath, breathe itself - no counting. No emptying your mind. No wishing you were calm. No telling yourself you were doing it wrong.
You will learn in time. It will come. This is not meditation nirvana. This is an incremental process; sometimes awkward and clunky. You must allow yourself to learn by trial and error. Breathe deeply and put your hand on your chest. Feel its warmth and gentle pressure containing you as you breathe and speak these words aloud - say 'in' at the end of your in-breath and say 'out' at the end of your out-breath. With each in-breath accept whatever sensations are already there. Don’t try to change them, even if they’re uncomfortable. With each new out-breath, let the sensations go, if you can. This is a process: don’t expect immediate results. Your anxiety will take time, patience, and frustration before it melts away.
You are likely to shut-down, freeze, and avoid addressing anxiety if you feel these symptoms;
- numb or detached from your bodily sensations
- in a daze, or gazing off into the middle distance or shutting-down
- unable to feel yourself, or drifting off into a trance
- frozen and unable to move your limbs
- cut off from the world
This is called dissociation.
First, sit down with an upright posture, or stand up with your legs apart and slightly bent at the knees (finding your centre of gravity). Stabilise yourself, pushing your feet into the floor until you feel connected and sturdy like the roots of a tree. Focus on feelings of stability, steadiness, firmness, and solidity, without being stiff or rigid. Gently sway as you balance and regulate your breath (as in tai chi movements). Focus on your connectedness to the ground, the stability of your body, the strength of your limbs holding you firm, and your rootedness to the floor. It will bring you back into your body and enhance your self-awareness.
You are likely to hold onto anxiety if you experience these symptoms;
- tension or tightness in the shoulders, neck, and back
- inflammation and stiffness of the joints
- a bloated, irritable bowel
- a cramped and bent-over posture when sitting
- under-breathing from the middle of your chest, not the diaphragm
- muscle spasms and cramps
- restless legs
- painful and tense headaches
First, sit or stand, preparing yourself for a slow round of gentle, but firm stretching for 15 minutes. With your hands clasped around your head, pull your head very slowly and gently down, until you feel the stretch going down your neck and spine on either side. Hold this for around thirty seconds and let go (repeat five times). Do the same stretching exercise by pulling your head forward along the diagonal to the left or right, for thirty seconds (repeat five times).
Second, place your right hand over your head with your fingers gripping the left side of your head, and pull down to the right, until you feel the stretch (repeat five times). Do the same on the opposite side.
Pull your right arm (extended) over your chest, using your left-hand to grip at the elbow and pull, feeling the stretch in your right shoulder blade. Do the same on the left (repeat five times).
Bend forward and down from your waist, with your knees slightly bent until you feel your hamstrings stretch.
Kneel down in a prayer-like position, bend forwards until you’re prostrate, and push forward along the floor, until you feel the stretch in the small of your back.
Always finish off with a cold shower. The shock, the shortness of breath and the cold will help you learn to self-regulate more instinctively. Always consult a doctor if you have any injuries.
4. Movement, or flow
You are likely to build up pressure and feel frustrated, trapped or rigid if you feel these symptoms and do not move;
- cramped and unmoving limbs
- ticks and muscle spasms
- jerky movements and restless leg syndrome in bed
- being rigid and stiff
- feelings of fatigue, rather than tiredness
- lack of energy or lethargic with tense, nervous energy
First, limber up your arms and legs, while stretching (yoga, tai chi, Pilates) to warm up. Get up and start walking in natural surroundings like a park or gardens. Move with slow, easy, fluid movements of the legs and arms. Try to focus on these sensations as you move, and synchronise your breath with the swinging of your limbs. Choose an invigorating pace and breathe deeply, in-rhythm with your walking. Tune-in to a flow-state. You only have to feel and be patient - it will come. Even if you start fighting it off, your breath and your body will self-correct. Eventually, you’ll find the flow. Focus only on the gentle, fluid movements you make, as you walk.