Exams, traffic, an argument or a deadline are all enough to trigger a ‘fight or flight’ response, sending stress hormones and adrenalin surging through our body. Sometimes, the body’s fight or flight response can be supersensitive, pressing go on the surge when there’s no real threat. The message to surge comes from the amygdala, a part of the brain that’s been in charge of fight or flight for thousands of years. It’s brilliant at its job, but sometimes it works a little too hard.
Managing Anxiety: The First Thing You Need to Know
When there’s no actual threat, there’s no need for fight or flight. That means there’s no need to expend the oxygen and energy that your body has been provided with. If you’re able to do some sort of physical exercise to metabolise these hormones, brilliant – but this won’t always be possible. Every physical symptom of anxiety is caused by the build-up of these chemicals in the body.
The Relaxation Response
The amygdala has had millions of years more practice at initiating the fight or flight response than we’ve had at stopping it, so generally, just trying to lay a convincing argument that there’s nothing to worry about won’t work. We need to convince the same brain that’s so heroically swung into action to protect us with the fight or flight response, to cool its jets because we’re fine – there’s no need to fight and no need to flee.
The relaxation response was designed beautifully by nature specifically for this task. Its existence was discovered by Harvard cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson.
The best thing about the relaxation response is that, like the fight or flight response, it’s also hardwired in the human brain. Being hardwired, there’s no need to believe the relaxation response will work – it just does. It’s automatic, just as the fight or flight response is automatic, regardless of whether we actually need it or not.
When triggered the relaxation response automatically and instantly sends out neurochemicals that neutralise the fight or flight response.
The relaxation response will decrease blood pressure, lower heart rate, lower pulse rate, reduce the oxygen in the bloodstream and increase alpha brain waves (these are associated with relaxation.
A Relaxation Response – How Do I Get One?
Being a physiological response, there are many ways to elicit the relaxation response. Experiment with the different ways to see which works best for you.
Remember, your fight or flight response has been doing its thing uninterrupted for a while so illiciting a relaxation response may take a bit of practice, but you will get there and the results will be worth it. Now for the how …
Control your breathing. (Yes. I know you’ve heard it all before, but stay with me.)
When your breathing is under control, the physical symptoms that are associated with shallow rapid breathing, an oversupply of oxygen and increased heart rate, will reverse. There are a few ways to do this:
Breathe in through your nose to the count of three, ‘In, two, three.’
Breathe out through your nose to the count of three, ‘Relax, two, three.’
Repeat until your breathing is under control.
- Make yourself aware of your breathing.
Put one hand on your chest and one hand on your stomach.
Breathe in so that your stomach rises.
Hold your breath briefly.
Breathe out slowly, thinking ‘relax’ and feeling your stomach fall.
Try to make sure that the hand on your chest doesn’t move very much.
Repeat 5 to 10 times, concentrating on breathing deeply and slowly.
Practice in advance – even on the good days – so you’ll have it when you need it.
- Try to slow your breathing down
Do this by taking a short pause between when you breathe out and when you breathe in.
Physical activity turns down an overactive fight or flight response by metabolising excessive stress hormones and returning the body back to calm.
Remember, the fight or flight response always intends for itself to end in vigorous physical activity – either fighting or fleeing the danger.
Running up and down stairs, sit ups, a quick run or fast walk – anything sweaty – is enough to bring the fight or flight response to its natural conclusion. This isn’t always possible, but exercise also has a protective function.
An abundance of research has shown that getting sweaty five times a week, for five minutes a stint – even if it’s not during an anxiety attack, will make people less anxious, stressed and depressed. That’s all it takes – five minutes. If hot and sweaty isn’t your thing, a 20-30 minute brisk walk five times a week is just as good. (In fact, it’s that good, it has the same effect on the brain as antidepressants.)
The benefit of exercise on mental health is a given. It’s been the subject of extensive research and has proved it’s point over and over.
Know what your symptoms are not.
Know that you are not having a heart attack. Heart attacks are likely to come with shortness of breath, pain or discomfort in the centre of the chest, as well as jaw pain, pain in one or both arms or another part of the upper body, generally on the left side.
Know that you are not going crazy. The very fact that you are able to question whether or not you’re going crazy means that you aren’t. People who have lost touch with reality lack insight and don’t have the ability to question or worry about their mental state.
Don’t fight it.
Anxiety feeds off itself until after while, you get anxious about being anxious. The more you struggle against it, the more it will stay. It thinks it’s there to protect you, remember. The more you can accept your anxiety and assure yourself that it’s there to look after you, the quicker your anxiety will fade.
Remember that your anxiety is a physical, neurological response of an over-vigilant brain. Remind yourself of this to cue the breathing techniques that will calm your physical symptoms.
Progressive muscle relaxation.
This can take a while to get used to, so if you can, practice every day, maybe before sleep to send to some much-loved zzz’s your way. Basically, it’s progressively relaxing tensing and relaxing the muscles from your toes to your head. Start with your toes – tense for a couple of seconds, then relax. Then, move to your feet – tense, relax. Then work your way up to your head. Here is a specific breakdown but you don’t need to follow it exactly. The main thing is to start with your feet and work your way up.
- Get comfortable.
- Starting with your foot (left or right, it doesn’t matter), tense your feet muscles as hard you can while breathing in. Count to ten with your muscle still tense. Suddenly and quickly, release the muscles to they are completely relaxed. Count to twenty. Repeat using the same foot.
- Repeat with other muscles, working up one by one to your face. Right foot – pull your toes up, tense, relax.
- Left foot.
- Right lower leg (calf).
- Left lower leg (calf).
- Right thigh.
- Left thigh.
- Left hand – clench your fists, relax, repeat.
- Right hand.
- Left Forearms – tense your bicep, hold, relax, repeat.
- Right forearm.
- Chest – breathe in as deeply as you can, hold, relax, repeat.
- Back – arch your back, hold, relax, repeat.
- Neck – pull your chin to your chest, hold, relax, repeat.
- Jaw – clench tightly, hold, relax;
- Tongue – push your tongue firmly against the roof of your mouth, hold, relax, repeat.
- Eyes – close tightly, hold, relax, repeat.
- When you’ve finished, count slowly backwards from five.
Mindfulness. If the very word invokes the smell of incense and lentils and the vision of Skye Liberty Rain and friends astral projecting under a dreamcatcher then you need to know this:
Harvard Medical School is on board, describing mindfulness as a powerful therapeutic tool. One of the ways it works is by improving connections in the brain. See their research here.
Research has shown that it can ease stress and help to alleviate depression and anxiety, improve sleep, mood and memory, facilitate learning, improve breathing, reduce heart rate and improve immunity. Mindfulness can also clear the mind, slow down anxious thoughts, slow down the nervous system, improve concentration and bring about relaxation.
The practice of mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism. It’s a powerful way to elicit the relaxation response and involves observing or noticing what’s happening now, in each unfolding moment, without judgement. In short, it’s the opposite of multitasking.
Now the how:
- Centre. Close your eyes and notice your body. Focus on your breathing. How does the air feels as you draw it inside you? Notice the sensation of the air, or your belly rising and falling. Notice your heart beating.
- Broaden. Once you’ve narrowed your concentration to what you’re feeling inside, start to broaden your focus. What can you hear? Feel? What ideas come to you? Consider each without judging or analysing. If your mind starts to wander, focus again on your breathing.
- Observe. Watch what enters and leaves your mind and find out which thoughts contribute to your struggle and which contribute to your feelings of happiness. Try not to fix on any one idea, emotion or sensation. Similarly, try not to get caught up in thinking about the past or the future.
- Stay with it. Aim for 20 to 40 minutes of mindfulness practice a few times a week. If this sounds like a lot, start slowly and build gradually. Mindfulness can be as easy as learning to pay attention to what’s happening around you – listening to music, walking, but really focussing on the experience. The results will be worth it.
It’s normal with anxiety to search frantically for the reasons behind the symptoms in an attempt to ‘solve’ whatever problem is causing the trouble. Because anxiety is often triggered falsely, without a real problem, trying to identify the source is fruitless, yet the anxiety continues.
Numbers 7. (‘Turn it Off) and 8. (Worry Well, but Only Once) will help with this.
Turn it off.
The idea behind this is to give your mind a break from worrying over and over about the same things or about nothing in particular.
- Sit quietly and close your eyes.
- Imagine a box that’s open and ready to receive every worry on your mind.
- See each issue, name it and put it in the box.
- When there are no more issues that come to mind, close the box and imagine putting it somewhere out of the way, maybe a shelf or a cupboard or under the bed, until you need to go back to retrieve something out of it.
- Once you have put the box away let the space that’s left in your mind be occupied with whatever is feeling or thought is most current to you.
Worry well, but only once.
Sometimes the only way through something is straight through the middle. Worrying about something in such a way as to give it full attention can help to stop it playing over and over in your mind.
Give yourself a time limit of 10-20 minutes and worry through all of the issues that are bothering you.
Set a time to worry about them again. If they pop up again in the meantime, remind yourself that you’ve already worried about them and that you’ve set a time to come back. Then, quickly divert your attention and thoughts to another activity. It might be helpful to have a ready made list of possible diversions.
And Finally …
You can’t learn to swim in a swollen sea.
Practice these techniques during quiet times when you aren’t feeling anxious. Every time you do, you’ll get better at it.
Your anxious mind will stop giving your body the ‘ready-set-go’ shove, and both of them will thank you.