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Relief from the grip of anxiety, stress and panic

If you suffer from frequent states of stress, panic, tension, agitation or withdrawal you are probably suffering from some kind of anxiety. Ignoring it, getting caught up in catastrophic dramas, or avoidance behaviours are all likely to increase your susceptibility to anxiety and cause you to fall into repetitive patterns of learned helplessness. You must therefore learn to notice the early warning signs of anxiety in your bodily sensations and emotional states so you can deactivate the physiological symptoms before they become overwhelming or harmful to your health.

There are four states of anxiety:

  • panic attacks
  • dissociation (detachment and withdrawal)
  • agitation
  • tension.

Panic attacks – when you have a panic attack, this is because your fight and flight response has been triggered by your body in response to an assumed threat or the build up of stress hormones and anxiety throughout the day. In a state of panic your nervous system has been triggered by adrenalin, cortisol and noradrenaline to prime you for fight and flight. This creates a cascade of extreme physiological reactions, such as raised heart rate, palpitation and blood pressure, hyperventilation or shortness of breath, a feeling like you being choked, bursts of adrenalin, dry mouth, sweating, trembling and tension or agitated movements in your back, neck and limbs. You must recognise the signs and bring them slowly back to a settled physiological state of homeostasis.

Early warning signs:

  • Heart rate quickens, heart palpitations.
  • Chest and airways tighten.
  • Shortness of breath, choking for air.
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or nauseous.
  • Trembling, shaking or spasms.

Breathing techniques:

Pause. Slow down. Find a quiet spot to sit down. Sit up with your back straight and fully supported. Hold someone else’s hand and squeeze it firmly but gently. Look into their eyes. Do not try to speak and keep as quiet as possible. Slowly settle down and tell yourself internally to relax your shoulders, back, arms and legs. Begin to breathe slowly and deeply from your diaphragm but not over-breathe (which may cause hyperventilation). Inhale from your nose and exhale from your mouth. Or inhale through the mouth, but slightly controlling the flow of the in-breath. Find a comfortable rhythm that suits you. Concentrate on the sound and sensation of your breath all the way through the exercise. If your mind wanders, discard any thoughts and bring your attention back to the sound and sensation of your breath. Do this all the way through with a sense of relaxed concentration.

Dissociation and detachment – the idea is that when you go into a dissociative (detached) state, cut off from your body, in a daydream or semi-trance like state with your eyes glazed over or unfocused you are at risk of being vulnerable and cut-off from your own sense of self-autonomy. As soon as you notice the early warning signs, practice one of the grounding techniques below.

Early warning signs:

  • Feeling cut-off from yourself and others.
  • Drifting in-and-out of daydreams.
  • Eyes glazing over.
  • Becoming numb or desensitized.
  • Feeling faint, dizzy or nauseous.

Grounding techniques:  

  • Take one slow breath and stand back or sit down with an upright posture. Put your feet apart. Feel supported by your body’s core from the base of your spine and pelvic region. Try to focus on where you are and your surroundings, including the people present.
  • Stamp or plant your feet firmly into the ground. Or feel your butt planted on the seat. Keep your back straight and breathe slowly, not too deeply. Grip your knees. Press your feet firmly into the ground.
  • Focus your eyes on someone’s face, voice or other interesting visual features in the room that catch your interest
  • Try and listen to some familiar music you can sing along to. Or even attempt to dance to it.
  • Rehydrate yourself. Spray your face. Use eye drops or take a shower. How does it make your body feel?
  • Rub your eyes. Shake your head. While clapping your hands, listen to the sound and sensation.
  • Hold onto something that supports you or grip an object such as a ball, a round pebble or a soft toy. Noticing how it feels in your hands and reminding you of the present moment.
  • Interact with a pet if you have one. One you can hold, hug, stroke or play with.
  • Reorient yourself with questions: such as where am I? What's the time and date? What is my name? How old am I?

Agitation and fidgeting – this is where you find yourself in an nervous, disturbed and restless state of being, constantly fidgeting, tossing and turning in bed, or obsessively cleaning and organising things so you can get relief from anxious thoughts and feelings. This is after a prolonged neurochemical build up of stress hormones and lactic acid in your limbs, which needs to be discharged or released through some kind of exercise or frenetic activity. This can frequently lead to thrill-seeking, addictions and chasing constant highs of intense sensation or acting out high emotional dramas. Such high levels of energy, stress hormones and mood states need to be discharged and homeostasis restored.

Early warning signs:

  • fidgeting
  • facial Tics
  • pacing up and down
  • finger or foot tapping
  • trembling limbs
  • tossing and turning in sleep
  • inability to sit still or concentrate.

Rigorous exercise:

  • You need to discharge excess energy and stress hormones through rigorous exercise such as swimming, running, cycling or fast walking.
  • Playing with a pet like a dog, or riding a horse.
  • Contact sport like rugby, football, hockey, karate, tai chi or boxing.

Tension and stiffness (or cramps) – typically when we have experienced long-term or accumulated stress states the body begins to seize up and stiffen in response to cortisol, lactic acid in the muscle tissue, the build up of inflammation and pressure on the nerves and spinal column. This is when we are likely to get a stiff neck, back and shoulders, pain in our joints, sciatica, tension headaches, migraines and sinus problems. This is due to the slow and steady build up of stress hormones and acids which inflame, irritate and intensify pain in the body. This usually needs to be discharged through relaxation, stretching, warm-downs and movement.

Early warning signs:

  • stiff neck, back and shoulders
  • inflamed nerves
  • painful joints
  • rigidity of movement
  • seizing up.

Stretching, movement and relaxing:

  • You need to carry out (with medical advice if necessary) a number of back, neck and shoulder stretching exercises. Use techniques gently and slowly such as chin to the chest, rotating the head from side-to-side, rotating the neck, pulling the shoulders to the front to stretch back muscles, pulling on the arms to stretch the shoulders, tilting the body at the waist, turning side-to-side at the waist.
  • Go to the sauna, take a hot shower or a warm bath and stretch.
  • Alternate between contracting and stretching out muscle groups from the tip of the toes to the tip of the head.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

I am an experienced counsellor at Counselling Twickenham, EnduringMind. I believe in a compassionate, open-minded approach to counselling as the best way forward for my clients. I focus on helping you make sense of erratic thoughts and emotions. Offering you a chance to gain self-awareness and change for the better.… Read more

Written by Greg Savva - Counselling Twickenham, Whitton - Masters Degree

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