What is anxiety and what can I do about it?
Feelings of anxiety or panic can be very disorienting, and it's something everybody to some degree experiences. It's a physiological process and you are not broken!
It is often helpful to have information about anxiety/ panic in general, as well as what to do when these feelings are acute. Here is what occurs physiologically during a panic attack:
- It starts in the brain. Neurotransmitters send chemicals to different parts of your brain. In the case of thoughts of panic, norepinephrine and serotonin go to your amygdala (fear) and hippocampus (memory), which is why it can feel like this feeling may never end; your memory center is literally being flooded with chemicals.
- This turns on your sympathetic nervous system (fight-flight-freeze), releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream. This is your body trying to mobilize you in en emergency. You may notice increased heartbeat, shallow breathing, lack of appetite, increase in sweat, all things that indicate that more energy is being pumped to your limbs and torso.
- This is problematic when there is no actual physical threat and this excess energy is detrimental rather than helpful!
So, what can you do about it? The first thing is a reminder that your body hears everything your mind says. Try to remind your body that it is safe and there is no physical danger, you are safe. Think of a time when you actually have been in a physical emergency; usually, people are actually very very calm until the threat has passed. Firemen who have panic attacks usually never have them when they're in actual danger, instead feeling panic when they are at the station for too long. Parents tend to be able to keep cool heads when their child fall and hurt themselves, getting their kid to the hospital.
- Anxiety lives in the body, so it is often helpful to try so intense exercise to help it move through your body. Burpees, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, jogging in place, etc.
- Engage your senses. Breathe as deeply as you can and pay attention to the sensation of filling and emptying your lungs. Ground yourself to the moment by keeping your eyes open. Listen to the world around you, feel fabric and temperature, hold a warm drink and taste it, etc. This page has some lovely techniques on it.
- The parts of the brain where panic resides are deep, old parts of the brain. We want to help get the newer, smarter, more logical parts of your brain back online. Play sodoku, do an easy crossword puzzle, read a fun, easy book (Harry Potter is a nice go-to). Do some mental math, or recite something you know by heart, like the national anthem, or a prayer.
- Allow yourself some self-compassion for how bad this feels. Look into a mirror and say something like, "you're having a rough time, but you'll make it through." Talk to yourself in the mirror as you would talk to a loved one. "This feels really bad right now, but it won't last forever. You're doing your best."
- Give yourself a break. Listen to some music that you love, go for a walk, write about what is happening in a journal. Cuddle in a warm blanket, do whatever you need to do to make the current situation more comfortable. There can be a tendency to not give ourselves time to rest in a panic attack because we "have too much to do" but this will only perpetuate the panic even longer.
Finally, panic attacks are cyclical and we tend to move through a similar, predictable pattern. This is to our advantage! So often it can feel like panic is unreasonable, too overwhelming, and neverending, but we can trace the panic cycle and see it through to the end. Remind yourself that your anxiety will come to an end and that you are safe.
Summit Stone provides walk-in sessions for folks who feel they need some urgent assistance to stay safe:1217 Riverside Ave. Fort Collins, CO, 80524, 970-494-4200, open 8am-midnight.
For ongoing care, Charlotte McKernan is a couple and individual therapist in Fort Collins, CO.