Monday, April 15, 2013
Breaking Anxiety's Grip
Breaking Anxiety's GripAmy Grabowski, MA, LCPC
"My heart beats so fast that it feels like it will explode out of my chest..." "A feeling of doom washes over me. Everything looks bleak and scary...." "My thoughts start to race... What if? What if? What if?"
When I was 19, I started to feel anxious and have panic attacks. Looking for help, I described how I was feeling to a doctor. He blankly diagnosed panic attacks, handed me a prescription for a tranquilizer and walked out. I felt alone, like some kind of shameful freak.
What I really needed from him, I didn't get: an explanation, and some reassurance that I was going to be OK.
When clients come to me with anxiety, I help them heal themselves in four ways. First, I give them reassurance that they are definitely NOT alone with these feelings. Anxiety is the #1 reason Americans seek counseling. Secondly, I help them understand anxiety, how it develops, and how to feel more "in control" of it.
Third, I teach them ways to help them stop the anxiety spiral. Then fourth, they learn how to comfort the "part" of themselves that becomes anxious. Anxiety is excessive worry that is difficult to control. It causes: restlessness, being keyed up, feeling on edge, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, difficulty falling or staying asleep, or restless unsatisfying sleep. (If you think about it, most people in our high pressure society feel anxious.)
Panic attacks are periods of intense fear or discomfort, with physical symptoms that develop abruptly and reach a peak within 10 minutes. These symptoms include: pounding heart, sweating, trembling, shortness of breath, feeling of choking, nausea, abdominal distress, dizziness, faintness, feelings of unreality or being detached from oneself, fear of losing control, fear of going crazy, fear of dying, numbness, tingling, chills or hot flushes.
When you understand anxiety, it becomes less frightening and then can be dealt with in a calmer more logical manner. Anxiety is an instinctual survival mechanism - developed millions of years ago. When Ms Cavewoman saw a sabertooth tiger, her brain registered a "threat", and activated her "fight or flight response". Her body gives her a squirt of adrenaline to make her heart beat faster, lungs breathe more rapidly, thoughts come more quickly, and her muscles to tense up - so that she could fight or flee. This is all well and fine if I am about to be hit by a Northbound Lincoln Avenue bus. That automatic squirt of adrenaline burns off as I run for my life.
But, most "threats" in today's society are abstract. Our brain cannot tell the difference between a real threat and an "imagined" threat. So when we think "Oh no! What if I gain weight?" or "Oh my God! My boss won't like me if I speak up!" we get the same automatic squirt of adrenaline - even though you would never start a fistfight or flee in terror.
Worse yet, we notice our bodies' symptoms and think "Oh no! I'm shaking! What if someone notices?" Our mind sees this as another threat, and before you know it, squirt! - another dose of adrenaline. This speeds up our bodies and minds even faster. When this is noticed, "Oh my God! What's wrong with me?" - (you guessed it) squirt, more adrenaline. And so on, and so on. To stop this out of control cycle, we need to recognize anxiety in our bodies. I often ask clients, "Where in your body do you feel anxiety? What does it feel like?" If your first anxiety symptom is a "lurch" in your stomach, then the next time it occurs you may recognize it and process it in a way that avoids the out-of-control-spiral.
Deep breathing exercises, visualizations, and other techniques can halt the anxiety spiral. For example, visualize the most calming color imaginable, and then the color of your anxiety. Take a deep breath in through your nose, and imagine that you "breathe in" your calm color. When you breathe out through your mouth, "exhale" anxiety. As you breathe in your calm color, imagine yourself in a calm setting, such as a beach, a cabin or anywhere that feels safe. As you exhale your anxiety, imagine that it floats away from you like smoke or confetti in the wind.
Since anxiety tends to make us zoom into the future, especially with "What if" thoughts, introducing a "mantra", a calming phrase that is repeated over and over, can be very reassuring. A mantra such as "Right now, this moment, I am not in danger" can bring us back to the present.
Sometimes just identifying that we are feeling anxiety and are having body symptoms, (but without the catastrophizing), can be calming. For example, "OK, I'm having body symptoms. So what? Nothing's going to happen" After doing all this for a while, you will feel in control of the anxiety by breaking the upward spiral of symptoms that had you in anxiety's grip. But it is not enough to just control the physical symptoms of anxiety. To finally stop the anxiety from reoccurring, you must address the underlying issues that started the anxiety originally, - usually with the help of a licensed counselor.
For each person, these underlying issues are unique. Yours may be based on family dynamics from years ago, or a trauma that never fully healed. Whatever the cause, the process of resolving these issues is the same. Feel a bit of the anxiety. Then visualize this feeling as a "part" of you who needs something from you. Often this part will be a younger version of you that is stuck in the past, and can't move forward because it did not get what it needed then.
If you imagine sitting next to this part, you may feel empathy and compassion for the part. Ask the part what it needs from you, what words it wants to hear more than anything else. Often the parts wants validation, acceptance, and reassurance -- phrases like: "Its OK to feel this way." "You are still good enough even though you're scared." "It's going to be all right." and "You are not alone." Write these phrases down on a card and pull out your card whenever you need to calm down.
When the part is calmed down, then you, your adult self, can take care of what caused you to become anxious in the first place. It sounds easy, but it does require work and persistence on your part. Using the guidance of a licensed counselor, you can finally resolve these underlying issues. Breaking the grip of anxiety will spiral you upwards -- to happiness, health and success!