In Part 1 of this mini-series on anxiety, I wrote about the link between anxiety and digestive problems.
This time, I want to talk about another physical symptom of depression and anxiety that I’ve had a lot of trouble with as well.
When I get in stressful situations, or when I get overwhelmed, my brain and body seemed to shut down.
I don’t know what to call this reaction. It’s like a spaced out kind of feeling. I get VERY tired all of a sudden. It is almost as if a fuzziness overtakes my being. All I wanted to do is go to sleep – like I took too much Benadryl. Everything in my head stops making sense. I can’t comprehend anything that’s going on around me either. My initial reaction is that I have to get out, get away, or run home because I feel like I might die.
This “fuzziness” symptom is a common symptom among people who struggle with anxiety and depression. By listening to Attacking Anxietyand Depression by Lucinda Bassett, I learned more about what this symptom is and how to deal with it.
I also learned that it’s actually not such a bad thing. This fuzziness reaction is the brains way of coping with relentless obsessive thoughts. Think of it as you brain giving your body a break from the constant anxiety in your mind.
Anyway, before I learned about this perfectly-normal-reaction symptom, being in stressful situations really freaked me out, to say the least. I would either start to get an upset stomach or feel spaced out and then I would freak out even more. “What if I’m going crazy? What if I run out of the room screaming crazy things and I embarrass myself in front of my friends? What if I pass out and I have to be brought to the hospital? What if I can’t function anymore? What if…what if…what if…”
This is how a panic attack begins.
In the workbook, I found this scientific explanation really interesting. This is what happens when you experience panic or anxiety (2-2 of Attacking Anxiety and Depression workbook):
“Your body senses fear and releases chemical stimulants into your system to strengthen your body so it can fight or flee from whatever it is that’s causing the fear, whether real or imagined. These chemicals include adrenaline, sodium lactate, and cortisol. As your anxiety level grows, more chemicals are released into your system.”
This technical reality is why you can’t just “get over it”. Your body already released the hormones into your system because it thought there was a potentially harmful situation. Even when the danger is unrealistic or made up, the chemicals are still released. All that pent up energy just gets traps in your body with nowhere to go and swirls around until you feel like you’re going to explode or die or whatever.
The key to coping with stress and anxiety is to stop fueling the anxiety with your thoughts because that causes more adrenaline to be released. You have to stop the snowball of obsessive, unrealistic thoughts before it starts rolling downhill and out of control. And then, you have to calm your body and mind so the chemicals dissipate and your hormone levels return back to normal.
When the panic first starts to set in, put up a stop sign and coax your thoughts down a different, positive and more realistic road.
Before I go any further, let me remind you that Anxiety is a GOOD thing. It can let you know how to react in a potentially dangerous situation. So, when it’s not a dangerous situation, all you have to do is let your body know it’s OK. Anxiety is not bad. Everyone experiences stress and nerves on a regular basis. Its how you deal with it that makes the difference in your mental health.
So, how does one stop the panic before it gets out of control?
To defuse anxiety, follow these Seven Practical Steps: (adapted from Attacking Anxiety and Depression, Tape 2)
I am going to use the example of going to a party.
1. Slow down – start by moving slower, taking slower breaths, walking slower, eating slower, talking slower, or whatever you’re doing, try doing slower. By slowing down your actions, you will be able to convince your mind to slow down as well. I have found that I cannot slow down my thoughts, if my body is moving too fast. I often sit down and close my eyes when panic first starts to set in. “I’m going to sit down over here where there are not too many people and pretend to look at my phone so I don’t look weird.”
2. Recognize (become self-aware) that you are currently feeling anxious. Try to pinpoint what is giving you the anxiety. “I feel underdressed at this party and that sparked some anxiety. I am anxious in social situations as it is. I am at a bar and I’ve been sober for over a year so this feels weird. There are a lot of people I don’t know crowded into a small space. The music is loud and it’s difficult to have a conversation.”
3. Then, give yourself permission to feel anxious – Say to yourself, “I am allowed to feel this way. Anxiety is not bad. It is just a reaction to this or that.” In my example, I could say, “This is just anxiety. I haven’t been in a bar in months. Of course I would be nervous. But it’s OK to feel this way. I am allowed to be anxious. I am committed to not drinking so I can think of the anxiety as an affirmation of my commitment.”
4. Focus on your breathing and take deep, intentional breaths for a specific period of time – 15 or 20 seconds, or however long you need. This is a technical, scientific step that you don’t want to skip. By taking calming breaths, you are slowly reducing the amount of adrenaline that is in your system. You are telling your body that there is no imminent danger and everything will be OK. If you don’t feel like you can do this where you are, step outside or go to the bathroom to take your deep breaths. However, if you are at a bar, I don’t recommend taking deep breaths in the bathroom…stinn-KEE!
5. Talk to yourself compassionately and positively – Say to yourself, “I am strong, I am confident, and I can handle this situation calmly.” If you are having a difficult time with this step, imagine that you are trying to calm down your 12 year old daughter (sister, brother, friend, etc). What would you say to her if she was feeling anxious? And then say that to yourself! “You are OK. You are doing such a good job dealing with your anxiety. A few months ago, you wouldn’t even have been able to get to this point. I am so proud of how much progress you have made.”
6. Remind yourself that it’s OK, it’s just anxiety, it will pass, and nothing bad will happen. (Notice the difference in how this sounds compared to “Oh no! What is going on! Why do I feel this way! I am so weird, no one else is freaking out but me!!) Realistically look at the situation and remind yourself that it is not as bad as you think. “I am not going crazy. I will not lose control. Anxiety will not hurt me. I can still be here with a little nervousness. No one knows I feel this way. No one is looking at me weird. They don’t care. I am going to be fine.” Tell yourself the truth.
7. Smile or find humor in the situation. You have to laugh at yourself. “Here I am, freaking out inside, feeling like a masked robber is going to burst through the door with a gun. That’s something my mom would be afraid of. You know what’s really funny? What if my mom was here right now? I wonder if she would ever get over the fact that there is carpet on the walls.” Seeing humor in the situation not only allows happy hormones to be released into your system, it also distracts you from the anxiety. Distraction can be a very useful tool in coping with anxiety. But it is important to remember that distraction is the last step. You can’t try to distract yourself without doing steps 1-6 because the anxiety will just come back after a short time. Distraction is most effect after all the other six steps are completed.
Follow these Seven Steps when you are having a difficult time coping with anxiety. Now that you understand why these steps are important and how it works, you can simplify the steps to one word or a short phrase.
In my phone, I have a shortcut to the Notepad. The one and only note reads:
1. Slow down2. Recognize
5. Positive talk
6. Just anxiety
With a few clicks of a button, I have this incredible resource at my fingertips. I highly recommend that you figure out some way to make these seven steps easily accessible to you.
People check their phones all the time, so I have no problem getting out my phone where ever I am. You might think I am sending a text, but I am really just reminding myself that it’s not the end of the world. J
Stay tuned for Curing Anxiety, Part 3.