Anxiety is very difficult as an emotion to manage. When you are in the grips of it, you tend to feel a rising panic that something really bad is already or about to open. The range of anxiety is a massive continuum from butterflies in your stomach before a performance (usually a positive kind of stress that can sometimes improve performance – but not always!) to a debilitating all out panic attack.
Panic attacks are scary. When in the grips of a panic attack people feel a number of really horrible symptoms including: heart palpitations, sweating, blurry vision, dizziness and often feel like they are going to have a heart attack. The intensity of the actual physical symptoms convinces the person they are in the grips of some actual physical breakdown or event that could lead to their demise. However, as many people eventually find out, all these symptoms and physical reactions are normal when someone is having a panic attack. The person is not dying or having a heart attack. There is some research indicating that women over the age of 50 who have a history of panic attacks are more at risk of heart attacks however this was not conclusive and there are too many others factors involved around heart attacks to conclude that one causes the other.
Usually the best way to handle these types of panic attacks is to learn how to lower the intensity of the physical symptoms and especially to not panic about having a panic attack! Sometimes the actual fear of possibly having a panic attack can be worse than the actual attack itself as people are often afraid of embarrassing themselves, falling over and hurting themselves, or if driving – the fear of having an accident is real enough and one that needs to be carefully dealt with.
Learning how to reverse some of the physical symptoms is critical to overcoming panic. Usually it can just be engaging your body in the opposite behaviour to what it is currently doing i.e. shallow breathing into the top half of the lungs should be reversed into deep breathing into the lower part of the lungs/diaphragm area. If your body tenses up, focus on relaxing the different parts of your body. Essentially its important to realise that when you are going into a panic state, your body’s autonomic system has been activated. The autonomic nervous system works independently of us and is engaged in a number of important life preserving functions such as breathing, heart rate etc… When you mind however sense danger or that it is under “attack” it engages the autonomic nervous system to help prepare you to either fight or run away. So what happens in your body? Your heart rate speeds up, your muscles tense – getting ready for action – your body withdraws blood from non-essential places in order to direct it where it is needed most to help save your life! This is the body identifying some kind of actual physical threat to your well being and it is reacting to protect you – physically. However, the problem is mental and emotional. There actual threat or danger is often not real and only perceived in your mind. But your brain doesnt care if its real or not, if you send the signal of danger, you will get the response from your body. This does happen very automatically (hence autonomic nervous system) but once it begins you can focus your mind and work on changing each othe symptoms to reduce the anxiety and panic.
There are many other different techniques for overcoming panic disorder, including flooding where the therapist or counsellor actually exposes the patient to their fears but in a controlled and safe environment thus helping the patient face the panic and begin to reduce its impact until it is gone. Of course there is medication for severe cases where someone is debilitated so much that they cannot continue with their normal, everyday routines. However this is a short term solution and ideally the person should get help to learn to overcome the panic on their own without the drugs.
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a different beast altogether. This one is like a low lying fever that never goes away. Its not nearly as intense as a panic attack but its just as debilitating over time as it can wear someone down and begin to affect their enjoyment and quality of life, their relationships, their ability to succeed at work etc. With GAD, there is a low level of general unrest in the body and mind with a sense of foreboding that something is wrong or something is about to go wrong. People with this disorder often feel that they are different to everyone else, that they cant seem to cope as well as everyone else with the normal day to day routines and challenges of life. A general sense of unease and foreboding seems to encompass the person. The cause of this is partly due to a number of subconscious and conscious thoughts that are firstly negative in nature and secondly somewhat distorted i.e. they usually do not bear much semblance to reality. However, once again your mind does not differentiate between the thoughts you choose to put into it, it will believe whatever thoughts you allow to occupy your mind. If you believe those thoughts your mind and body will take it as the truth and respond accordingly.
So one of the tricks then with GAD is to begin to catch your faulty and negative thoughts and begin to analyse them. Get them down on paper and learn how you can prove to yourself that what you are thinking is negative and not representative of the truth of your life. There is a system of therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy which is ideally suited for treating this type of disorder and I have used it successfully with many of my clients as well as in my own life. There are 10 major cognitive distortions that have been researched and linked to faulty and negative thinking which in turn lead to depression and anxiety. Learning these categories is critical to identifying the thoughts and then responding to them in a manner that reduces their power over you until you and thus your general level of anxiety and depression.
Over time what you are learning to do is cut a new groove in your brain and becoming more proactive in what you allow yourself to think about. You begin to choose the thoughts that you will have in your mind, just as if you were on diet and choosing healthier food over fast food that you know is not good for you. Its the same principle. We think we don’t have the power to change these things but we do! Its hard work at first but they pay offs are brilliant and your life will never be the same again. Imagine living without debilitating anxiety, stress and depression? Imagine being able to change how you feel whenever you want to and then taking the positive actions that can help you achieve what you really want to in life? Well, you don’t have to imagine it. Just learn how to change your thinking and you will change your life.
If you would like a free sample chapter of my book which explains the 10 cognitive distortions and how to change your thinking, feel free to send me an email and I will be happy to send it to you.
Best of luck and may you live the life you truly wish to!