Feeling anxious? Time to tame that tiger
Heart racing, churning stomach, breathing faster, feeling sick, restless, twitchy, a bit shaky, headaches, fuzziness – these are all signs of feeling anxious.
We all experience anxiety, and at times we can experience periods of heightened anxiety if we are frightened, shocked or threatened by a situation we may find ourselves in. To some extent this is ‘normal’ as it’s a physiological response – our body’s reaction to ‘danger’ and a response that is a functional design, a warning to keep us safe.
However, there are times when we can experience prolonged anxiety and our symptoms last much longer than the initial event. We can find it hard to recognise what it is we are actually feeling anxious about, or our level of anxiety appears disproportionate to the situation, resulting in hypervigilance and hyperarousal. Because of the unpleasantness of our physical sensations, we then start to feel anxious about feeling anxious, moving further away from what the ‘perceived threat’ was all about.
The body responds to our negative or unhelpful thoughts - we may view situations negatively (a social event, a presentation, a meeting that we are not looking forward to, a difficult conversation we need to have etc), and our body reacts with the release of adrenaline otherwise known as our in-built fight or flight response. Although in reality it is unlikely that you would have to fight or run from a saber-tooth tiger, the response remains the same. The muscles tense, blood circulation changes, breathing rate increases, heart rate increases, and there are changes to the digestive system, all due to a sense of threat – a perceived threat to our well-being – and then… bingo! Welcome to the cycle of anxiety.
At that moment it can be difficult to work out what the perceived threat is and to think logically and rationally about how to deal with the issue. We become too caught up in the anxiety feelings. Instead what we need to do is tame the tiger. Instead of fearing it, recognise the message that this tiger is actually giving us: to slow down and breathe. Slow your breathing rate and everything else will follow on. The heart rate slows, the tension decreases, the stomach relaxes, the adrenaline rush subsides. It’s not rocket science, but in that moment of anxiety, thinking rationally is often elusive.
There are lots of different breathing and relaxation techniques out there, so take some time to explore these and find the one that suits you. Then practice, practice, practice so it becomes your ‘go to’ exercise when you notice that increased anxiety levels are present. One of the simplest exercises is the 'ten to one breaths'. Breathe in deeply, hold for a few seconds, then gently exhale slowly until it feels like there is no breath left in your lungs. As you exhale, count ‘ten’ inside your head. Repeat this with another breath cycle and count ‘nine’ and again repeat the cycles with ‘eight’, ‘seven’ until you get down to ‘one’ and have completed ten deep breath cycles. This takes around a minute to complete. Notice how you feel after this – less anxious? Calmer? Repeat the cycles again if necessary to reduce the feelings of anxiety further.
You have now tamed that tiger - easy! Now put it on a lead! Recognise how that tiger of unhelpful thinking is really a kitten that needs some gentle challenge alongside some care and attention. Listen to what the tiger is afraid of, and start to problem-solve against feeling overwhelmed. For example, ‘how real is this threat?’ ‘how can I look at this differently?‘, what can I do here?’, ‘what would be helpful?’, ‘who can I share this with?’, ‘what are my options?’. Writing some of this down on paper can be really helpful to start with. Then you can start to feel in control of your actions, and of your anxiety, enabling you to explore your situation rationally, rather than letting anxiety control you.
If you feel that you have a problem with anxiety, seek out a psychotherapist or counsellor, who can help you with strategies to manage it more effectively and to unpick and resolve what is going on for you.
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