Does anyone else get anxious before taking an important test? How about before meeting your new in-laws? Do you ever get anxious before speaking before an audience? Has anxiety ever been so severe that you had to cancel important events in fear you may have a panic attack and embarrass yourself? Well, you are not alone about 30% of the general population experiences debilitating anxiety at some point in their lives (Kessler et al., 2005).
Anxiety is a normal emotion that like other emotions is necessary to navigate whatever environment we find ourselves. It is an emotion that has been passed down from our long-long ago ancestors who found that paying attention to anxiety increased the odds they would avoid being a sabertooth tiger’s lunch. That you and I are still here generations later is a sign our ancestors were better than average recognizing and responding to anxiety.
While anxiety can be very uncomfortable, we wouldn’t want to try venturing too far from the neighborhood without anxiety lest we stumble into some place that we regret. The feelings of anxiety can be so brief we hardly give them notice. At the other end of the spectrum is almost non-stop anxiety about anxiety…or worry about worry. It seems like our head is full of non-stop thoughts about all the things that could result in injury or demise to loved ones or us. It may begin with a sudden but brief sharp pain in our lower abdomen. Our mind goes into diagnosis mode, and before we know it a tummy cramp from too much Kentucky Fried Chicken becomes a ruptured bowel, followed by sepsis, and sudden death! When the anxiety gets to this stage unless some intervention is applied the anxiety is likely to escalate into a panic attack.
I can’t repeat it enough, anxiety is normal, and some level of anxiety is good for us. Anxiety enhances our mental and physical performance until it doesn’t. Anxiety itself is seldom the problem…the problem lies more with how we interpret the thoughts and feelings conjured up when anxiety comes into conscious awareness. Notice that anxiety is an anticipatory feeling. The feelings of anxiety appear before and sometimes long before the perceived threat is present. It may start as a smell, a sound, a shape, the weather, darkness, or an unfamiliar body sensation. We might call these situational triggers in contrast to triggers that are hidden in the deep dark crevices of our mind making the trigger out of reach of conscious awareness.
Conscious, unconscious, or situational, anxiety is always precipitated by a thought. In nanoseconds, that thought is translated by our minds as a possible danger. Without our permission, the brain signals the autonomic nervous system, particularly the sympathetic nervous system, to prepare to “fight, flee, or freeze!” Our pupils dilate, blood is redirected to the muscles needed for fighting, running, or freezing (like a deer with the headlight in the eyes). Our heart begins noticeably beating faster, we might feel sweaty, and in extreme cases, we might have a sense of “I’m dying,” “I’m having a heart attack,” and some people faint. For anyone experiencing these very real and disturbing sensations it feels like it will never end. The good-good news is these sensations almost never last more than a few minutes. However, the residual mood may last for hours.
Recovery occurs when the other part of the autonomic nervous system comes online. If the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for getting us ready for F-F-F then the parasympathetic nervous system are the reins needed to bring a runaway horse under control, or the emergency brakes of an out of control of eighteen wheeler going down a steep mountain grade. In well-functioning systems, these two systems compliment the other and keep the organism from getting out of control. But like any over used system, if we keep calling on it, the system will suffer some degree of degradation. This is the situation with trauma survivors or those constantly exposed to trauma. The F-F-F system becomes dysregulated and is stuck in a constant state of F-F-F. Initially, the braking system tries to intervene, but the accelerator is stuck. Like other bodily systems if after numerous attempts to perform its function do not result in the desired effect it takes itself off-line. One then can see how a dysregulated sympathetic nervous negatively affects a person’s physical health, mental health, relationships, employment, leisure, and just about every other area of normal functioning.
But good news. There is a very simple sure-fire fix, and you don’t have to buy a membership, take a wheel barrel full of pharmaceuticals, or make an appointment for surgery. No, you don’t need any of these. All you need to do is breath. Something everyone reading this already knows how to do but like most things we can improve our breathing. But even learning to be a better breather is with a little practice very easy.
See it works like this. Your breath is the signal to the F-F-F system to hit the accelerator or back off. We know that shortness of breath is one of the signs that F-F-F is engaged. So deep breaths are the signal that the perceived threat is no longer present and the system can return to normal. Our breath does something else. It signals the heart, indirectly through the parasympathetic nervous system, to return to its normal resting heart rate of about 60 beats per minute. Now all the systems are functioning as designed. From the time of the first deep breath, it may take a few minutes to achieve homeostasis.
Don’t forget this all started with a thought and that thought(s) is in the driver’s seat. So while we are breathing, we are bringing our focus to our breath. Feel its warmth as it enters your nostrils, listen to it as it enters your nostrils then your lungs and finally with this deep breath notice how our tummy expands. Now just for a few beats hold your inhale and then while silently counting 1,000, 1,001, 1,002, 1,003, exhale through your mouth. Again give mindful awareness to your breath as it passes over your palate and out between your lips. Now notice those troublesome thoughts have disappeared, or if they are present, we simply acknowledge them and then return to our focused breathing.
Simple and no side effects that often accompany benzodiazepines. Here are some other hacks for keeping anxiety under control.
Getting overwhelmed with emotion isn’t pretty. Think fist-shaped holes in the drywall, a blowout bar fight, or throwing your soon-to-be-ex’s stuff out a window, preferably ablaze. But overwhelming emotion can also turn privately inward, resulting in cutting, drinking yourself into a stupor, or a massive binge.
In some ways, all the drama makes sense: big emotions often feel scary. But it’s not the big emotions themselves that are dangerous; it’s the way we choose to react to them. We all know someone (or are someone) who seemingly has an allergy to emotions-even a small exposure to negative emotion leads to the psychological equivalent of anaphylaxis. In those moments, you need a quick fix. For such moments here is three-body hacks to try when you need an emotional EpiPen.
Tip #1: Go soak your head. One way to instantly disrupt overwhelming emotion is to immerse your face in ice water. Seriously. Fill the sink, add ice cubes, hold your breath, stick your face in, and keep it there for 30 seconds. Holding your breath and immersing your face triggers what’s called the diving reflex, which is your body’s lifesaving reaction to a fall into cold water. It’s evolution’s protection against falling through thin ice on a lake or capsizing your raft into a cold ocean. Specifically, your blood vessels reflexively narrow, your pulse slows, and oxygen shunts to your most vital organs-your heart and your brain. In order to conserve energy, all non-essential bodily functions are dampened, including, it so happens, negative emotions. An alternative way to trigger the reflex and stay dry at the same time is to keep a gel pack in your freezer and, when you’re feeling out of control, hold your breath and place it over your eyes.
Tip #2: Literally chill out. If you’re not in a socially acceptable place to soak your head, you can also squeeze a fistful of ice until it hurts. After all, it’s better to dig ice out of your cocktail than risk throwing it in someone’s face. Squeezing ice until your hand hurts doesn’t trigger the diving reflex, but it does create a strong sensation that activates pain offset relief. This is the phenomenon that occurs when a painful sensation stops. When you finally let go of the ice, rather than returning to your pre-ice emotional state, your body will experience a short burst of intense relief, even euphoria. Pain offset relief is also the reason cutting “works,” but squeezing ice is a much safer way to get a similar result.
Tip #3: Breathe as if you’re blowing bubbles. No, this isn’t some kind of “visualize your negativity floating away on bubbles” exercise. It’s a breathing trick that makes use of a physiological phenomenon called respiratory sinus arrhythmia. A key to calming your body is slowing your heart rate. And while you can’t change your heart rate by sheer force of will, you do have backdoor access via your breath. The trick is to make your exhale longer and slower than your inhale. Why? Heart rate synchronizes with respiration-when you inhale, your heart beats a little faster, and when you exhale, the pauses between your heartbeats are a little longer. Just knowing you have the psychological equivalent of an EpiPen at hand can make you less tempted to leave a trail of your ex’s clothes strewn along the highway. A final note: if your strong emotions go along with thoughts of killing yourself or you otherwise can’t keep yourself safe, call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room. You deserve way more than a body hack!