What to do when you're feeling anxious
Anxiety is a totally normal human experience, and yet when you're caught in its throes it can feel scary and overwhelming. This is because when anxiety takes a hold of us, primitive biological functioning can override our rational mind.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a response danger, and as such it signals for the body to go in to a state of 'fight or flight' to protect us. When this occurs, our cardiovascular system response by increasing our heart rate and breathing, getting the blood flowing to our muscles and extremities in preparation for a potential fight or to run. Adrenaline starts to flow through our body, which facilitates blood flow to our muscles and heightens our state of awareness. Our sympathetic nervous system, the one designed to prime us for action and keep us safe, becomes activated. Our body temperature increases and we start to sweat, a evolutionary mechanism designed to make us harder to grab by predators. Our pupils widen to let in more light and prepare us to spot the danger. All of these physiological functions can lead to behavioural actions - like pacing, foot tapping, jaw and fist clenching, or becoming snappy with people. In some cases, the physiological responses to anxiety result in feeling frozen and unable to move. This is also an evolutionary response as it enables us to 'play dead' for predators.
But the thing with anxiety is that there isn't always an immediate threat or danger. Most of the time anxiety builds in response to us anticipating threat and feeling concerned that something dangerous that could happen -- this is what I refer to as anxious thinking or the anxious mindset This can look different for everybody. Sometimes it's going through all the things that someone might say or do in response to your actions or words. Other times it's worrying that something terrible could happen to you or somebody you love. Or it could be that you're remembering something scary that has happened to you and you're worried that it might happen again. However it manifests for you, if you break it down, anxiety is almost always in relation to the anticipation of an event that has yet to happen. As humans we like to feel safe and comfortable, and when we are faced with the unknown we often end up feeling uncomfortable and scared. So this type of anxious thinking is often a way of coping with the not knowing by trying to fill in the blanks and anticipate possible outcomes in order to feel more prepared.
But, when we are caught up in an anxious mindset of trying to anticipate and predict unknowns our body can't tell the difference between perceived danger and immediate danger so it just goes in to 'fight or flight'. So the wealth of embodied sensations (like increased heart rate, muscle tension, feeling short of breath and lightheaded) can end up contributing to your anxiety, especially when you start to wonder about what's happening and whether your body is ok. For example, as your heart rate increases and your breath quickens, you will start to take in more oxygen this can leave you feeling lightheaded. This can contribute to a sense of panic and feeling unsafe in your body. When we start to feel unsafe in our bodies and worry about whether they are ok, this can be a big trigger for a panic attack.
What you can do to reduce your anxiety:
If you're caught up in an anxiety cycle, or a panic attack, that's been triggered by perceived danger as opposed to immediate danger, there's a few things that you can do to help calm your body and your mind --- because don't forget, they're interconnected:
1. Put both feet on the ground / floor --- The physical sensation of being in touch with something solid underneath of you can have a bigger impact on your sense of security than you realise. It also helps to remind you of where you are. This is particularly helpful if you're remembering something scary that has happened to you in the past -- you need to remind yourself that you are no longer there.
2. Breathe -- Your breath is your anchor. Slowing it down and regulating it will help to signal to your body that there is no immediate danger. The most effective way of breathing through anxiety is to count your breaths. This has the added benefit of helping to distract you and disrupt your anxious mindset.
Sit up as straight as you can to make sure your lungs are open. Breathe in for 5 counts, hold your breath for 2 counts, and then exhale for 4-5 counts.
In - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - hold - 2 - out - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5
Do this as many times as you need to until you feel your breath start to slow down and regulate.
3. Naming -- This might seem a bit odd, but once your breath has regulated a bit, consciously focus your attention on the space around you and start listing all the colours that you see. Do this slowly and deliberately. Once you finish, you can name the different objects that you see in the room or wherever you are. Then name what you smell, what you can touch, and what you hear. This helps to bring you back in to the moment and reminds you of your surroundings, which can be helpful for letting your body and your mind know that you are not in immediate danger.
4. Self-soothe -- Once you feel your body start to slow down, this is a sign that your parasympathetic system has kicked in and your body recognises that there is no immediate danger. You might start to yawn or feel the need to roll your shoulders and neck, so give yourself permission to do this. Now it's time to be kind to yourself and remind yourself that you are safe, that anxiety is a normal human experience, that your body was just trying to protect you, and that you've made it through the other side of the anxiety. Use "I" statements, like:
"I am safe here"
"My body is safe"
"My body was just trying to protect me because it thought I was in danger"
"I have grounded myself"
"I have survived my anxiety"
"Anxiety is a normal human experience and its purpose is to keep me safe"
"I am ok"
The more you can normalise your experience and remind yourself that you are safe and ok, the more calm you will start to feel. But it's important to use statements that make sense for you.
5. Reach out --- You can reach out for support at any time throughout this process, but in my experience it's sometimes hard to do in the moment. But after you have activated your parasympathetic nervous system and reminded yourself that you are safe and ok, reach out to somebody that you care about and ask them for support, or just take some time to connect to them.
Anxiety is a totally normal human experience with the specific function of keeping us safe from danger. Sometimes we need to remind our body, and our mind, that we are not in immediate danger and doing so can bring us back to a calmer and more comfortable state xx