What To Do When Feeling Anxious
First things first. I’ll start by suggesting very useful things to try anytime you find yourself anxious or have a panic attack. As part of this, I will suggest questions which will counteract the harmful effects of anxious thoughts. Then I will consider the importance of identifying both the triggers of your anxiety and also how it shows up in your body. The importance of enjoyable exercise is emphasised. Lastly we consider how counselling can help.
When Anxiety Strikes
1. STOP! Pause; take a few breaths deep into the stomach; close your mouth and breathe only through your nose; count to 4/5 on the inhale, pause to the count of 3 and then exhale to the count of count of 6/7 ( the exhale should be longer than the inhale).
2. Orientation: This is a technical word for bringing yourself into the present moment. Bring yourself into the here and now by doing a brief orientation of your surroundings. Look around you and note the main features of the room. Listen to the sounds around you. Touch some objects in the room. Ground your feet against the floor and your back against the chair. Be aware of your breathing and body sensations.
One useful exercise to bring yourself into the present moment is the 5 senses grounding technique. In the here and now just be aware of 5 things you see; 4 things you hear; 3 things you sense in your body; 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste now in your month.
3. Question yourself: What am I thinking and feeling now? Behind the anxiety there are negative thoughts and feelings driving it. Identifying the thoughts and feelings is very useful for reducing anxiety.
What am I reacting to? What is it that I think is going to happen here? What’s most likely to happen? What's the worst (and best) that could happen?
Am I getting things out of proportion? Am I overestimating the danger? Am I underestimating my ability to cope? Am I putting more pressure on myself? Is there another way of looking at this? Is this fact or opinion?
How important is this really? How important will it be in 6 month’s time?
Am I mind-reading what others might be thinking? Am I believing I can predict the future?
What happens by responding the way I usually do? Is there another way of dealing with this? What would be the most helpful and effective action to take? (for me, for the situation, for others) What advice would I give someone else in this situation? What do I want or need from this person or situation? What do they want or need from me? Is there a compromise?
What or when are the times when you are more likely to get anxious? If you can see the patterns, then maybe you can do something about those situations, and do something different. Certain times and places? Certain people? Certain things? Now think ahead about these situation and plan new ways of responding.
Awareness and the Body
The body keeps the score. The ups and downs of our lives are imprinted in our bodies. The effects of our anxiety too are imprinted in some or various parts of the body. Learning to identify where we store these physical sensations is a great help to reducing the symptoms of anxiety.
Our language is full of phrases which point to how we embody both our negative and positive thoughts and feelings. Here are some examples for 3 significant parts of our bodies:
Stomach area: ‘butterflies in my stomach’, ‘all tied up in knots’ ‘twisted inside’ ‘ cannot swallow or stomach something’, ‘belly laugh’ ‘feeling warm in my belly’
Heart: ‘heartache’, ‘broken hearted’, ‘heavy hearted’, ‘light hearted‘ and ‘open hearted’
Shoulders/Neck: ‘he’s a pain in the neck’, ‘that’s a weight off my shoulders’.
The mere conscious awareness of these tensions and reactions helps to start taking the edge off the anxiety. If you focus and concentrate on the sensations you will notice that the sensations will change relaxing even further. When given due attention and left to its own devices, the body will naturally self-regulate and establish calm and equilibrium in our bodies. With this calmer more relaxed body you will more easily recognise the negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours that have been sustaining your anxiety. More importantly with this calmer body you will gain the wisdom, confidence and self-control to establish healthier thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
We can develop this bodily awareness by practicing mindfulness preferably for some period every day. You Tube is an excellent resource for brief 5, 10 and 20 minute guided meditations which are a good introduction to the practice of mindfulness. Many of the elements of the 3 stage response when anxiety strikes (Stop/ Pause- Orientation – Questioning) are to be found in meditation practices which encourage things like deep breathing, coming into the present moment and getting in touch with your thoughts, feelings and senses.
A healthy lifestyle of a good diet and enjoyable regular exercise is a fundamental foundation on which all the actions in this article can be built upon. Many of the adverse effects of the body’s anxious adrenaline response can be used up healthily in physical exercise. Go for a walk, run, cycle or swim, or do some gardening or housework. A key ingredient is to pick the exercise(s) you enjoy the most. Practising the exercise in the great outdoors particularly in mountains, forests and seas brings so much added value to the exercise.
‘No man is an island’. Growing self-awareness is at the heart of the work of healing from anxiety. It takes courage and perseverance to get to the root of our anxieties. Very few can do this work alone. A good counsellor will help clients to recognise the thoughts, feelings and body sensations which sustain and maintain their anxieties. With a good counsellor, clients gradually develop the capacity to question and modify their thoughts, feelings and sensations. This growing self-awareness leads to more healing and the capacity to make the necessary behavioural changes to live the life they really want to live.