4 Steps to Conquering Anxiety

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

A few years ago, I went through months of chronic and distressing anxiety.  I’d be in bed – or getting ready for bed – and a sudden wave of nausea would hit me.  This was followed by hot and cold sweats, light-headedness, and trembling.  My chest hurt and my heart would race like it was trying to escape my body.  My brain went into hyper-drive, blasting a series of run away, run away, run away messages.  A couple of times, I truly thought I might be having a heart attack, and even went to the emergency room.  When no physical cause for my symptoms was discovered, I was sent home, bewildered.  How could there be nothing wrong?  I felt not only several hundred dollars poorer, but also embarrassed and ashamed.  Quite frankly, I thought I was going nuts.  I had no idea these were panic attacks.  What I felt was physical, not mental…right?

I knew I couldn’t keep going to the ER, but also knew something was wrong.  I tried taking antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds for a while, but these left me feeling zombie-like and numb, and they didn’t actually prevent anxiety attacks.  I didn’t want to be medicated – I just wanted something that would stop these attacks in their tracks.  The doctors didn’t seem to understand (or believe) I wasn’t drug-seeking, and weren’t interested in explaining what was happening to me.  It was demoralizing and discouraging.  I decided to figure this out for myself – to find the safe equivalent of hitting myself in the head with a coconut – something to STOP the panic once it had started.

I started by tracking my symptoms and soon discovered my bouts of nausea were either caused by gastrointestinal issues or a “gut punch”.  You know the gut punch.  It’s the feeling which triggers our fight or flight response, such as when we suddenly get bad news.  Studies have shown people with anxiety have a faulty flight switch.  In other words, it flips on at random, sending panic messages from the brain to the various systems in the body, thus generating the physical sensations of a panic attack.

When the nausea would start, I’d go through a brief mental checklist to determine the source: Is this possibly food poisoning? Did I eat something which could trigger IBS / diverticulitis?  Most of the time, I was able to rule out a gastrointestinal cause for the nausea AND I was able to determine my IBS flare-ups and panic attacks followed similar — but distinctly different — patterns.  Identifying these differences was the key to feeling better.  I made some minor changes to my eating habits which GREATLY diminished my gastrointestinal issues, which in turn reduced some of my stress and meant less confusion between my physical and my mental health symptoms.

I began practicing the following thought-stopping / distraction techniques at the first signs of a panic attack:

  1. Counting backwards from 100
  2. Switching on a funny show and closing my eyes, picturing the action in my head instead of watching it on the screen. This forced me to focus on what I was hearing and helped me turn off the panic switch by activating a different area of my brain
  3. Taking long, deep breaths – three seconds to inhale, three seconds to exhale

These three techniques worked wonders for me, but it wasn’t an overnight cure.  I had to put these methods into practice and repeat them until I’d conditioned a habitual, healthy response to anxiety.  There were nights when I would have to count backwards from 100 more than once, or would lie awake listening to Bob’s Burgers for hours, but now I can honestly say I haven’t had a full-blown anxiety attack in at least two years.  I still get the gut punch on occasion, but am able to quickly calm myself and avoid those horrible heart-attack sensations.

The 4 Steps

  1. Track your symptoms
  2. Separate brain and body symptoms.  If possible, make changes to your daily habits to reduce symptoms related to medical conditions
  3. Find the patterns
  4. Use early distraction

If you are currently taking antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications, DO NOT stop taking them without your physician’s consent.  Mood disorders are complicated and many require medication to restore chemical balance in the brain.  The point of this post is NOT that you do not or should not need medication.  The point is you can attack your anxiety INSTEAD of allowing it to attack YOU!  When you learn to control your brain’s faulty fear factor, you not only minimize the physical and mental distress of a panic attack but also maximize the effectiveness of your medication.  You will start to FEEL better!

 

Anxie-tea

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We all know life is good at throwing us curve balls.  Some of life’s difficulties — such as the death of an elderly relative or a child going off to college — although unpleasant, are not entirely unexpected.  The real curve balls are those sudden shocks to the system – finding out you have cancer, losing your job, a breakup – that are like suddenly being hit in the face with a steaming cow pie.

Some people expect trouble all the time, living with a constant burden of fear and worry.  Just watching the news for a few minutes should be enough to convince anyone these worries are not completely unfounded or unreasonable.  Bad things happen regardless of whether we’ve been naughty or nice.

Getting caught by surprise can send a shock wave through our coping systems, overloading us with worry and regret.   The result is often a fear of trying new things.  New relationships, careers, adventures – all are avoided because of an inner voice which echoes, “You remember how badly things ended last time, don’t you?

To say you can learn to expect the unexpected would be untrue.  Someday, bad news is apt to hit you like a bolt of lightning, and it will totally suck.  But living with the expectation of trouble also sucks; it sucks the joy out of life.  So how can we weather life’s storms today without losing hope for tomorrow?  The key is in preparation, not expectation.

People in the Gulf Coast often keep a ‘hurricane kit’ on-hand.  Those in the north often have extra supplies on hand for surviving blizzards.  For weathering those soul-crushing storms of the psyche, there is much comfort to be found in small, seemingly mundane tasks.  As an avid fan of British mystery shows, I often wondered why nearly every crisis was met with somebody saying, “I’ll put the kettle on.”  Tea was made and cups poured, but frequently untouched.  After a particularly trying day, I decided to test this peculiarity out for myself and I discovered something: the act of drinking tea is less important than the act of making it.

There’s nothing complicated about making a cup of tea, but something magical happens while we do it.  The part of our brain which handles repetition and sequence is engaged, granting us a temporary reprieve from the anxiety centers of the brain.  Granted, stopping to make tea doesn’t resolve the major issue at hand, but it does allow us a moment to catch our breath.

Try imagining the brain as a file cabinet, with the front files in disarray and those in back in perfect order.  So often, an event takes us by surprise and we feel completely powerless.  This is the front of the file cabinet, but very close behind is order – those things we CAN control in a time where everything feels quite out of control.  It may seem odd to claim there is power in making tea or coffee, or doing laundry, or any number of ordinary household tasks, but indeed there is.

When a crisis comes, allow yourself to stick with some small habit, even if it means encountering some disapproval from the people around you.  If you normally go for a walk every day, try sticking with it even if you have to limit your time.  If you write or journal each day, go ahead and write, even if the topic is how you don’t feel much like writing.  Feeling anxious?  Make a cup of tea or coffee.  Make several if it helps you feel better; nobody says you have to actually drink them — sometimes just holding the warm cup can be soothing.  The point is to focus – if only for a few minutes – on the back of the file cabinet.  The problem of the day may still need to be addressed, but you will be better able to deal with it because you’ve found yourself some breathing room.

 

“A” is for Anxiety, “P”is for Phone…

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Do you ever get phone paralysis?  When you get a call or a text message, do you ever find yourself frozen, unable to respond?  It can be difficult to explain phone paralysis to somebody who has never dealt with anxiety, but there is a very real, physiological reason behind it.

Within the brain is a group of neural clusters called the basal ganglia.  These clusters surround the deep limbic system (where depression lives) and are the anxiety center of the brain.  Persons with overactive basal ganglia may regularly experience one or more of the following: nervousness, being easily startled, anxiety, panic attacks, tremors, and nervous tics.  Other and often more severe symptoms can include persistent headaches, obsessive-compulsive type disorders, and Tourette syndrome.  Symptomology is caused by a semi-permanent heightened state of alertness which causes the sufferer to consistently anticipate conflict.

Have you ever driven a car with a sensitive gas pedal?  Imagine your brain as a car with the engine constantly revved up; the slightest touch of the gas pedal sends it lurching forward.  Lurching forward at the wrong time can cause an accident, which in turn can cause a fear of driving.  Similarly, when our brain lurches us into a panic attack at the wrong time, we can become fearful of social situations and stressors.

Now obviously, there is no right time for a panic attack.  However, there is a difference between having one in the privacy of your own home versus the middle of a shopping mall or board meeting.  Perhaps one of the most aggravating aspects of anxiety is its incessant ability to generate more anxiety.  What frequently happens is this:

Person senses a panic attack coming on

Person recalls the horribleness of previous panic attack(s)

Anxiety over past panic attacks fuels the current panic attack

It is a terrible cycle.  Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”  That is exactly what anxiety disorders do; they teach us to fear fear.  Whereas normal basal ganglia might generate mild excitement or nervousness about an upcoming event, overactive basal ganglia will convince you that if you attend, things will go apocalyptically wrong.  Sound extreme?  Not to somebody with anxiety.  In essence, their ganglia are gangling up on them.

Panic attacks are dis-empowering.  They rob people of their dignity.  This is why anxiety disorders often manifest as agoraphobia and conflict avoidance.  When we anticipate a situation may become stressful enough to provoke a panic attack, we avoid it.  Further complicating matters is the revved up brain which needs very little to set off its alarm bells, thus making even a common task like answering the phone feel very threatening.

There is good news – you CAN cool the engines of your brain!  What has worked for me is “PBB” – Puppy Belly Breathing.  When we breathe normally, our chests rise and fall with each breath.  Have you ever watched a puppy sleep?  Its little belly swells up with each breath, and that puppy sleeps peacefully as can be.  Forget the old adage ‘sleep like a baby’.

Sleep like a PUPPY! 

When you crawl into bed, focus on filling your belly with a deep, cleansing breath.  Hold it for a couple of seconds and then exhale slowly.  Do this ten times.  Then practice PBB throughout the day.  Make it a habit!  By doing so, you allow more oxygen to reach all the cells in your body and cool overactive basal ganglia, which will return your brain to a comfortable idling speed.

Let me know if it helps!

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