Is it possible to be completely anxiety free in our daily lives? To live our lives as relaxed as if we were lying in a hammock on a tropical beach?! This blog looks more at the road to recovery particularly in cases of long term serious trauma, including that which occurred in childhood. listening to the gentle lapping of the waves, feeling the sun warming our skin, not a care in the world except which cocktail to try next…??? Well, no. And neither should we expect to – anxiety itself is a healthy condition – a biological mechanism (called the fight or flight response) that helps us react quickly to dangerous events.
A basic survival mechanism
Fight or flight is an essential part of what it is to be human and has evolved to keep us safe. But if this fear response is over active and fires when it is not needed, it can result in over-worrying, avoidance, phobic fears and panic attacks. As these develop it becomes more and more difficult to live your life, which in turn makes you feel more anxious and so feeds the problem.
You might describe anxiety as like a dog chasing its tail – our body feels an anxious feeling and this transmits to your mind which then looks to see why and what is going on. And what it looks for it will find which in turn will further raise the feelings. So levels continue to rise – just like a dog chasing its own tail.
Our human ancestors survived by learning how to be quiet, timid and very careful. In a world where most large animals were stronger, faster, more vicious and armed with teeth or claws, the best way for humans to survive was avoidance. Although we don’t face those large hairy predators today, we have inherited the ability to be scared, to scan our environment for danger and to panic. And unfortunately, this ability can be used habitually and inappropriately. Once we have learned that a certain situation is dangerous by panicking, the mind ‘remembers’ this fact to ensure that the next time it sees a similar situation, it can give you the necessary response to enable you to fight or to run away. Some people eventually find it too difficult to go outside the safety of their home at all and have to give up a job and a social life.
So how does anxiety actually feel?
This is one man’s experience:
“Every moment was exhausting. I dreaded going out and meeting people I knew. I felt like everyone was looking at me, that they were judging me or pitying me or were some kind of threat to me. I tried to behave like nothing was wrong, when all I wanted to do was lock myself in a room and curl up in a ball. I seemed to have this heightened awareness of everything – lights were too bright, noises were too loud, colours too bright. My shoulders were so tense all the time – my body physically ached. I could actually feel my heart thumping in my chest. It was impossible to focus on anything, my thoughts were all over the place – and sleep? Forget it. Exhausted all day but when I got into bed, I was suddenly wide awake.”
So what can be done to calm our whole system down, to lower this emotional arousal? Luckily there are many things we can do:
1. Practice 7-11 Breathing
Here is how you do it:
• breathe in for a count of 7
• then breathe out for a count of 11
Couldn’t be simpler, could it?! Make sure that when you are breathing in, you are breathing right down into the tummy area rather than shallower higher lung breathing. If you find that it’s difficult to lengthen your breaths to a count of 11 or 7, then reduce the count to breathing in for 3 and out to 5, or whatever suits you best, as long as the out-breath is longer than the in-breath. Continue in this way for 5-10 minutes or longer if you have time – and enjoy the calming effect it will have on your mind and body.
This technique is effective because out-breaths stimulate what is called the Parasympathetic Nervous System, a natural bodily response that enables you to ‘rest and digest’ as opposed to ‘fight or flight’ (the Sympathetic Nervous System). Out-breaths decrease your blood pressure, dilate your pupils and slow your heart rate – lowering your emotional arousal in the process. This technique for relaxing quickly has been used for thousands of years throughout the world. Practicing it a few times a day will lower your overall stress levels in the long term.
2. Positive Visualisation
There are many excellent (and free!) guided visualisation / relaxation audio clips online. You could download a selection onto your mp3 player. They usually involve a calm, soothing voice giving you directions on how to relax both mind and body. Your senses are engaged to heighten your experience of deep relaxation. You may be asked to visualise a peaceful scene in nature or a healing white light or to see yourself accomplishing a goal. You may also be asked to repeat affirmations to help you to feel good about yourself and to reinforce those good feelings. Some people use guided visualisation to find that place within themselves where they can get in touch with their intuition. Through images and sometimes feelings or thoughts that come up for them, they often find answers to questions they had been struggling to resolve within their conscious minds.
3. Be Mindful
Mindfulness is a very simple idea, simply a technique for living in the present moment. We tend to live our lives either going over and over what has already happened or thinking ahead to what might be going to happen. We often have a kind of “tunnel vision” when we are busy, stressed or tired and the same worrisome thoughts go round and round in our heads. We often stop noticing the world around us, lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’. Mindfulness involves reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of the breeze on our arm or the sound of birdsong.
Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment. We don’t have to try to change or fix anything – just allow ourselves to see the present moment clearly. It stops us living our lives on automatic pilot.
Some people make a formal practice part of their everyday lives: One such practise is meditation where participants sit or lie down silently and pay attention to the sensations of breathing or other regions of the body, bringing the attention back whenever the mind wanders. Another is yoga where participants move through a series of postures that stretch and flex the body, with emphasis on awareness of the breath.
For more information on Mindfulness click here.
4. The Rewind Technique
If anxiety can be traced back to a traumatic incident, the Rewind technique can work extremely well. It is a deep relaxation technique where an anxious client recalls the memory of the traumatic incident (and does not have to tell the therapist the details of this incident if they prefer not to). The technique results in a traumatic memory being “refiled” as simply a normal memory without the trauma attached.
5. Challenge those Negative Thoughts!
When we are feeling anxious, we tend to look at the world in ways that make it seem more dangerous than it really is. For example, you may overestimate the possibility that things will turn out badly, jump immediately to worst-case scenarios, or treat every negative thought as if it were fact. You may also discredit your own ability to handle life’s problems, assuming you’ll fall apart at the first sign of trouble. Sometimes we don’t even notice that we have fallen into this kind of negative way of thinking – it has become a habit.
So…once you have used some of the above techniques to lower your emotional arousal, the next step is to start to challenge some of those negative thoughts. Start by identifying the frightening thought, being as detailed as possible about what scares or worries you. Act like a scientist – instead of viewing your thoughts as facts, treat them as hypotheses you’re testing out. As you examine and challenge your worries and fears, you’ll develop a more balanced perspective. Ask yourself:
• What’s the evidence that the thought is true? That it’s not true?
• Is there a more positive, realistic way of looking at the situation?
• What’s the probability that what I’m scared of will actually happen?
• Is the thought helpful? How will worrying about it help me and how will it hurt me?
6. And finally…Make Life Changes
Once emotional arousal has been lowered and our logical brains are able to function again, people can feel ready to take action to make necessary life changes – which is the really important part of anxiety treatment. This might involve looking for a new job or course of study, making changes in close relationships or perhaps giving up some bad habits which had been used as a coping mechanism. It’s really important not to jump in and make changes too early – when we are emotionally aroused, we literally become “stupid” and it’s easy to make a decision you might later regret. And once you’ve decided on the changes you want to make, take it nice and slow – break goals down into small manageable chunks.
To read more about anxiety, click here
To read more about anxiety counselling, go to my Anxiety Counselling Cork page.
Need some more help or advice?
If anxiety is affecting your life and you would like some help or advice, please call Alison Winfield, MindfullyWell Counselling, Cork on 087 9934541.
Book a counselling session today!