- What is the fight or flight response?
- Simple techniques and practices for working with your anxiety and panic attacks.
I have worked with many clients experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. Every client is unique and what may trigger anxiety or panic attacks varies. For some clients, anxiety and panic attacks may be mild and infrequent. For other clients, they experience constant anxiety and frequent panic attacks, some may experience anxiety without panic attacks. Anxiety can be a natural and perhaps even an expected response to circumstances in our life. For example, starting a new job or school. The kind of anxiety we experience on starting a new job or school can decrease over time when we become used to the change in our life. However, for some individuals, this anxiety doesn’t go away. I have worked with clients who didn’t know what their triggers were, and anxiety was a constant feeling for them. Most people will experience feelings of anxiety at some point in their life either briefly during a stressful time, or for extended periods. One thing that all clients have in common is a desire to experience life without being restricted or held back by these feelings and to feel more in control. I understand this, it is something that I experienced myself for many years.
Experiencing anxiety and panic attacks can result in feeling out of control, and we can become afraid of our reactions, we begin to fear the fear. I believe knowledge is power and educate all my clients about the fight or flight (or freeze) response. It is important to know what is occurring within your body and that it is a natural response to a perceived threat.
WHAT IS THE FIGHT OR FLIGHT (OF FREEZE) RESPONSE?
I will take you through the physical reactions that you may be experiencing and explain the reasons why they occur. Our fight or flight response is important for our survival. In an emergency, the fight or flight response can assist you in responding appropriately. When a threat or danger is perceived (real or imagined), before your conscious mind has had time to assess the situation your fight or flight response is triggered. Chemicals including adrenaline and cortisol are released. What happens once this chain of events is set in motion? Our body prepares to run from the threat, or to fight it. Muscles require oxygen to work, so our breathing changes to bring more oxygen into our bodies. Oxygen is carried through the blood to the muscles, so our heart rate increases to deliver the oxygen to those muscles. Energy is needed to fight or run so all our energy is directed towards where it is needed. As a result, digestion slows or shuts down. Our senses sharpen and our focus narrows in on the perceived threat. This is all useful and appropriate if there is a danger or a threat.
When you are experiencing stress, anxiety and panic on a regular basis, there is a negative impact on your body and your brain. When your body is in fight or flight, your immunity is compromised. You may notice you catch colds more frequently and they linger longer than they should. Constantly being in fight or flight reduces your ability to move back into homeostasis (balance), leading to the feeling of constantly being ‘switched on’ to anxiety. Anything we do repeatedly will strengthen the pathways in our brains, for example, when you learned to ride a bike. Anything you repeatedly do will make your brain better at it. The neural pathways that trigger the fight or flight response become stronger, turning those small neural roads in your brain into super highways. Your fight or flight response then engages faster, as you are changing the way your brain functions. However, you can learn new ways to do things and build more helpful pathways in your brain. The key is repetition. Consistent and regular practice of stress and anxiety reducing techniques increases their effectiveness.
If you are experiencing stress, anxiety and panic attacks the fight or flight response can result in breathing difficulties, dizziness, feeling light headed and/or your heart beating noticeably faster. If your digestion is impacted it can result in uncomfortable sensations that may create feelings ranging from butterflies in your tummy, nausea, diarrhea or a heavy weight in your abdomen. Remember, your experience may be different to others, you may experience some or all of them. All of the physical sensations described may be signals from your body that you need to seek medical advice. Always consult your medical professional and rule out other underlying issues before assuming anxiety is the cause.
PRACTICES AND EXERCISES FOR WORKING WITH YOUR ANXIETY AND/OR PANIC ATTACKS
Below I offer some simple techniques that may assist if you if you experience anxiety and/or panic attacks. Some of the exercises I offer below deal with the feelings of anxiety and panic in the moment they are occurring, others are long term strategies. Although helpful, they will not address the underlying issues, life circumstances, or fears that drive your anxiety and panic. I highly recommend seeking the assistance of a counsellor to work with the causal issues that may be contributing to anxiety and/or panic attacks. Working with a counsellor you may also discover other techniques that will work for you.
The below techniques are not medical advice. If you are experiencing breathing difficulties and/or heart symptoms, or any other physical sensations as listed above, please consult a medical professional.
MINDFULNESS FOR ANXIETY AND PANIC
The following technique may assist in bringing your mind and body into the current moment and create greater mindfulness. When experiencing anxiety and panic the mind can begin racing, this technique may assist in grounding you mentally and physically into your present moment.
• Look around you, what are 5 things you can see?
• Listen carefully, what 5 things can you hear?
• Notice 5 things that you can feel in contact with your body (for example, your feet on the floor, the chair you are sitting on, your watch on your wrist etc.).
BREATHING FOR ANXIETY AND PANIC
When we experience anxiety and panic our fight or flight response is activated. Breathing is one way you can work towards calming your mind and body. It is recommended that you practice this technique often so that it becomes a habit. Then, when you are experiencing anxiety and/or panic, you will be used to doing this and it will come more automatically to you. Perhaps practice when you are in the shower, waiting in line at the supermarket, or lying in bed.
Count how long it is taking you to inhale and how long it is taking you to exhale. Make sure that your inhalation and exhalation are the same length, the same count. Never force or strain. For example, if you are inhaling for a count of four, you will exhale for a count of four. If this is effortless and comfortable for you, perhaps add another count to your exhalation, so that your exhalation becomes a little longer than your inhalation. For example, inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of five.
Ensuring your exhalation is the same length or longer than your inhalation activates your parasympathetic nervous system. This is the opposite of fight or flight and is known as ‘rest and digest’.
PHYSICAL ACTIVITY, DIET AND REST
Being physically active can assist in removing the hormones associated with anxiety and panic attack from your body. You don’t need to engage in strenuous exercise to benefit (unless that is something you enjoy). Going for a walk, a swim or any other gentle activity can have benefits. Eating well can also contribute to your general wellbeing, not just physically but mentally. Anxiety and stress can impact on the quality of your sleep. Set up a healthy sleep/rest routine by:
- Avoiding electronics (phones, tablets, laptops and TV) prior to going to bed as well as avoiding them in bed.
- Avoid any drinks or foods that stimulate you prior to bedtime (this may be different for you, but many find caffeinated drinks keep them awake).
- Set up a regular time to sleep.
- Do things prior to bed time that you find relaxes you (bath, meditation, gentle music etc).
So, I must admit a little bias here as I am a yoga teacher. Over 20 years ago I attended my first yoga class and found it to be the perfect fit for me, assisting me with my anxiety. However, it may not be for you. If you have tried Yoga before, but found that it wasn’t for you, perhaps try another class or 2. Yoga is taught differently by many wonderful teachers and it may be that you need to find the right fit for you. I prefer a gentle class with an emphasis on meditation, relaxation and breathing, perhaps you need something different? I particularly enjoy restorative yoga (as a student and as a teacher), as it calms the parasympathetic nervous system and is relaxing for body and mind. Contact Yoga teachers in your area and ask questions and then attend some classes to see if it works for you.
Relaxation is not watching television or scrolling through Facebook. Relaxation is about achieving a relaxed body and mind, becoming quiet and still. Although relaxation is too broad of a subject to explore here, I will offer you some common relaxation techniques. Begin by making yourself as comfortable as you can, perhaps lying in bed, or sitting in a comfortable chair.
- You can focus on the movement of your breath. Feel the cool air entering your nose as you breath in, and the warm air as you breath out. Feel the movement of the chest, how the chest expands as you inhale and deflates as you exhale. If your mind wanders (and it will wander), without any judgement bring your awareness gently, but firmly, back to your breath.
- You may prefer to focus on your body. Begin at the top of your head, take your awareness slowly down through your body, relaxing each muscle. Feel yourself sinking deeper into the surface you are lying or sitting on with each exhalation.
Meditation is different to relaxation as it is practiced from a seated position with the spine straight. You don’t need to twist yourself into any specific kind of seated position, use a chair if you find this more comfortable than sitting on a cushion on the floor with your legs crossed. Meditation is not about emptying your mind, it is about narrowing your focus to one thing. You can close your eyes if this is comfortable for you. However, you can leave your eyes open if that feels right for you, simply lower your eyelids slightly and gaze softly through your eyelashes. There are far too many ways of meditating to list all of them here, but I will list a few simple ways you may begin a meditation practice. Perhaps begin with 5 minutes and increase the time you spend meditating when you feel ready.
- Focus on the movement of your breath.
- Count your breaths. Perhaps counting from 10 down to 1, then, when you reach one begin at 10 once again.
If your mind wanders (and it probably will), without any judgement return your awareness gently and firmly back to your focus (breath or counting).
ADDRESS THE CONTRIBUTING ISSUES
If there are challenges and issues in your life that are contributing to your anxiety, stress and panic then these will need to be addressed. All the techniques and practices in the world cannot assist you if you need to change your circumstances or your perspective. Sometimes, challenges and issues are not within your control. However, there may be things that are within your control, but you don’t know how to address them. Talking with a counsellor may assist you in finding your own way to work with your challenges, whether this is making changes to your circumstances or to how you view things. Or, a counsellor may assist you in discovering practices and techniques that work for you. Hypnotherapy can also work well for anxiety relaxed issues.
A FINAL WORD
Counsellors, mental health professionals, friends and family can only assist and support you, but they can’t fix things or do anything for you. Working with your anxiety, stress and panic is not easy and you are the only one who can do it. No one can do it for you. If one thing doesn’t work, keep trying different things until you find something that works for you.
There are many techniques and practices that may assist you when you are experiencing anxiety and the ones I have included here may or may not be for you. If you are experiencing stress, anxiety and/or panic attacks, please contact me for an obligation free, confidential discussion as to how I may be able to assist you. Skype, WhatsApp, Messenger sessions and personalised Hypnotherapy MP3’s available.
Inner Mind Therapies
WhatsApp +61 403 357 656
Phone 0403 357 656