Do you struggle with the symptoms of anxiety? In order to understand what’s going on – so you can then deal with it in an effective way – it’s worth understanding something basic about the brain/body, called ‘the fight or flight* response’.
When there’s a threat to your physical safety, your body’s emergency response kicks in automatically. A part of your brain called the amygdala sends messages (“get ready to fight or run away!”) to your body super-quickly, and adrenalin and other stress hormones take over, causing all sorts of physical changes.
So your heart races, muscles are pumped for action, blood leaves your extremities, your breathing gets faster and shallower, you may sweat or feel cold, and your face may change colour.
Do these symptoms sound familiar? If you’re someone who struggles with anxiety, you probably experience these kinds of feelings all too often. Anxiety is a version of the ‘fight or flight’ response.
How does that work?
Well, your amygdala can’t tell the difference between a physical threat (like a bus careering towards you) and an emotional threat (like when someone you care for makes a hurtful remark to you).
And the really annoying thing is, all these physical changes can even happen with an imagined threat. Worrying about a future exam, or about your presentation at work being a disaster, could be enough to get your amygdala responding the same way as if a stray tiger had entered the room!
Luckily, there’s a way that you can help yourself calm down when your stress hormones have been triggered. Another automatic bodily response can be helped to kick in: the ‘relaxation response’. Like ‘fight or flight’, this is hardwired into the brain – so you don’t need to believe it works, it just does. When the relaxation response kicks in, neurochemicals calm your heart rate, increase relaxing brain waves, and lower your blood pressure. You feel calmer and more settled.
So how can you bring on the relaxation response?
If your body is hypersensitive to the fight or flight response (i.e. if you’ve been suffering a lot with anxiety over time), developing a reliable relaxation response will probably take quite a lot of practice, but you can achieve it and you will be so relieved when this become a real, practical option for coping with anxiety.
Try a combination of these 8 ways to foster the relaxation response and reduce anxiety.8 ways to foster the relaxation response and reduce anxiety Click To Tweet
Have you ever noticed that when you try and fight it off, your anxiety digs its heels in stubbornly and gets more resistant? Don’t forget, it’s only been trying to keep you safe. When you remember this, and accept it, you might notice your anxiety beginning to dissolve.
- Notice Your Feelings
When anxiety floods us, it can be hard to spot any other feelings. But one of the best ways of regulating anxiety is to become aware – perhaps in a slightly detached way – of all the feelings you notice in your body. These can range from the purely physical (I have an itch on my back) to the more emotional (such as feelings around the heart and gut). If you can, talk to someone about what you’re experiencing, as you are experiencing it. Make sure they know that they are not expected to do anything about it, or make it go away; their role is to be there by your side and listen**.
Another very helpful thing when you’re anxious can be to focus your attention on your feet and legs, really trying to notice all the sensations, from the tiniest to the broadest.
This is a really important one. When you exercise, those stress hormones are mopped up and used, so you can return to a more peaceful state. Do it when you’re feeling anxious – rush up and down stairs, or go for a quick jog around the block if you can.
And also see if you can fit more movement into your week, generally. Walking swiftly for just half an hour, most days, can be as beneficial (or better) for your mood as antidepressants.
Getting your breathing to work for you and not against you is really important. Sitting calmly and upright, make your breathing slower, with the out-breath slightly longer than the in-breath, and a little pause between breaths. See if you can get it so your tummy rises and falls with each breath, but your chest doesn’t move all that much. This is a good one to practise when you’re feeling okay, so it comes easier when you’re feeling anxious.
Breathing is such a basic, natural thing that many people find it hard to realise how powerful it is. But it really does have a profound effect on your physiology, and your emotions. Shallow, fast breathing makes you more anxious; slower, deeper breathing can really help to calm you.
It’s a good idea to remind yourself that even though you may be having symptoms that can in themselves feel frightening, it’s an anxiety attack. Ask your doctor to teach you how to distinguish the symptoms of a heart attack, and those of an anxiety attack, and write this down. Keeping the information written on a card that you carry around will mean you will be in a better position to reassure yourself when necessary.
Often people fear that their anxiety symptoms are a sign they are going mad. Again, reassure yourself. Any ‘going crazy’ feelings are much, much more likely to be a temporary symptom of anxiety.
This has been shown to have real benefits for all sorts of difficulties associated with anxiety. You can find lots of information online, for example here:
- Calming Words
At a time when you are not feeling anxious, have a think about what calming words you’d ideally like to hear from someone when you are in the middle of an anxiety attack. See if you can find a form of words that feels ‘right’. Write them (or ask a loved one to write them) on a card that you can carry around, ready for reading to yourself when you feel anxious.
- Use Your Creativity
Take a look at my article, ‘Creative Solutions for Managing Difficult Thoughts’. It’s got lots of ideas you can try, for managing when you’re feeling anxious and having repetitive thoughts and worries.
When you’re feeling anxious, first remind yourself of what’s going on in your brain and body. If it’s possible, practical and appropriate to do some vigorous movement, do that first (run up and down the stairs a couple of times, or go for a walk). If not, concentrate on slowing and deepening your breathing. Then add in the other techniques I’ve mentioned.
You’ll get best results if you’ve been practising in-between times, when you aren’t feeling strong anxiety, so it might be a good idea to make a plan for daily anti-anxiety practice. Take a look at my tips for self-care, too, so that you maximise your resilience. And cut out caffeine – some people are very sensitive to caffeine and avoiding it can make a massive difference.
I hope that you find these tips helpful. If your anxiety persists, it may be very helpful to consult a psychotherapist, counsellor or Art Psychotherapist. If you’re in the UK, look for someone who is registered with UKCP, BACP or HCPC; if you’re in another country, check the licensing regulations so that you can be sure to work with someone who is properly qualified.
*It’s actually a bit more complex than just ‘fight or flight’, as there are a couple of other mechanisms at work, nicknamed ‘freeze’ and ‘flop’; but I’m using ‘fight or flight’ here because I’m trying to simplify things.
**If you are concerned about your physical health, make sure to discuss things thoroughly with a medical professional, and follow their advice.
Daniel J. Siegel, ‘Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation’ 2010, Random House
Chris Johnstone, ‘Find Your Power’ 2010, Permanent Publications, East Meon