Chance favors the prepared mind. –Louis Pasteur
Stress and anxiety are ubiquitous in our culture. A certain amount of stress, known as “eustress,” is good for your health. It also increases focus and performance. However, everyone has their limit, a point at which coping resources no longer meet the situational demands. When this happens, performance degrades. Awareness of this degradation sets up the potential for a fear reaction and a negative feedback loop. As the limbic system becomes activated (fear), problem solving further deteriorates and that gap between coping resources and demands further widens. If this progresses far enough it becomes a panic attack. Left untreated, panic attacks can lead to Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, or Depression.
Anxiety can manifest in a number of ways depending on individual makeup and severity. It could be experienced as a vague sense of fear or threat. Sometimes it arises physically as stomach or chest pain. Other signs are shortness of breath and cold, sweaty hands. At the extreme end of panic, it may manifest as hyperventilation, shaking, sweating, memory blackout, and dissociation.
Novel Ways to Reduce Anxiety
This article outlines a number of strategies to cope with anxiety and panic if it happens to you or someone else. This is not meant to be a substitute for professional evaluation or treatment, but rather as potentially helpful items to add to your toolbox.
There is an old saying by Carl Jung, “That which we resist, persists.” Did you ever get that jingle stuck in your head and the more you wanted to get rid of it, the more it stuck around? Anxiety is something like that. When we don’t want to have a feeling, we tend to ignore it until it turns into background noise known as anxiety. Anxiety is not an emotion in the proper sense. Rather, it is what happens when we avoid emotion. With enough avoidance, it can somaticize completely into stomach issues, chest pain, or headaches. So how does this help? Let’s try to reverse the process. That means bringing your attention back to what has been avoided. The place to start is where the sensations currently exist. Most people find the sensations in the area between the stomach and the head. Get curious about the experience that is anxiety. How do you know that you are anxious? What does it feel like in your body? Become aware of it as if you were reporting your symptoms to a physician. The key is to focus on the physical experience and not get caught up in the thoughts about it. During the self-examination, look intently for any signs of resistance to what you observe. Muscle tension is an obvious resistance, but there are likely other subtle types of resistance there as well. As you discover resistance, give the intention to let go. You may find it helpful to “breathe” in and out of this area. It may take a few moments for things to begin to dissolve but stay with it. If you find this difficult, check out a guided body scan meditation.
Trust Your Heart
Sometimes people with anxiety or panic will fear they are having a heart attack. This can be precipitated by a loud noise or intrusive thought that triggers adrenaline makes the heart pound. This fear will obviously make the anxiety worse and establish a negative feedback loop as the limbic system becomes more and more activated. If you have been unfortunate enough to have panic attacks in the past, then you know what this is, and you know that it will eventually pass. The more you try to control what is happening, the worse it will be. Remember that the body works perfectly fine without your thinking about it, such as when you are asleep. Surrender is the only viable option. Repeat this statement “The body will take care of itself.” over and over until things start to subside. It doesn’t matter if you believe this or not. The unconscious does not have a truth filter. Just keep repeating it until you are calm.
Make It A Happy Ending
Many of our neuroses come from some fear of the future. It is such a mysterious place and completely unknown. We can concoct some horrendous fantasies about what will certainly befall us. As we indulge these stories again and again we are rehearsing for a perpetual tyranny of intrusive catastrophic thinking. If your attempts to replace this with unicorns and rainbows have been unsuccessful, then you might try to just go with it. Instead of watching that internal horror film and hitting pause at the scariest part, let it play on through. Imagine the worst does happen, then imagine how you would cope if all those fears came true. Keep playing that movie into the future until you get to a place where you are okay. Once you see how you will survive your worst fears, then there is less to be anxious about. Once you have made your new ending, play it every time that old fear resurfaces and you will find you need it less and less.
The Old Bait and Switch
This is the brute force approach. Fortunately, the rational part of the brain (frontal cortex) has braking power on the emotional part of the brain (limbic system). Unfortunately, these brakes are very weak. However, if you are clever and persistent, you can overcome this limitation. Shift power from your emotional mind to your rational mind by doing a task only the rational mind can do. For example, try counting backwards from 1000 by 4’s or 7’s. The task shouldn’t be too easy or too difficult. You need to be in the Goldilocks zone of difficulty. After a few minutes of this, the rational part of the brain will be back in control. If this doesn’t work, it’s because the task is too easy, too hard, or you quit too soon. Keep at it; it takes a few minutes for those stress hormones in your blood to metabolize away.
Getting Professional Help
If you have recurrent panic attacks, then you should seek help from a professional counselor who specializes in treating Panic Disorder. Make sure he or she is well-versed in applying Exposure Therapy, the gold standard for treatment of panic. If OCD is co-occurring, then the standard treatment is Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). Many people suffer needlessly from these disorders for years because they haven’t received the proper treatment.
Dustin Johnson is a Licensed Professional Counselor at Peak Clarity in Fort Collins, Colorado.