Anxiety – a User Guide
Heart palpitations, rising to a crescendo until you feel as though your heart is going to beat out of your chest. Throat tightening, bringing with it panicked thoughts of ‘I can’t breath!’ On occasion symptoms so severe that an ambulance has to be called. A sudden and gut wrenching churn of your stomach. An immediate need for a bathroom. Your guts vacate your body with a torpedo-like force, leaving you in hot sweats and all over body shakes. You might then need to stand up, turn around and face the bowl for another vacation of bodily fluids, vomiting up anything that might be left of your innards. Unfamiliar places are unsettling. Leaving the house starts to feel increasingly risky. Familiar patterns, routines, and venues become ever more important. Graphic and unpleasant as it is, does any of the above sound familiar? These are some of the experiences of panic attacks or anxiety my clients have described to me during my years practicing as a counsellor. I would wager there are many more symptoms that others have also experienced. What can you do? It might be helpful to tell yourself that the symptoms you are experiencing are caused by anxiety and WILL pass. It might not feel like it in the moment, but there can be ways to help yourself feel calmer and let the symptoms subside. Breathing is obvious, but how you breath in the onset of symptoms is really important. Breathe in gently and deeply through your nose for 2 to 3 seconds, release the breath through your open mouth slowly for 2 to 3 seconds. Repeat this slowly and regularly. Focus on the muscles in your body; tense and then release your muscles starting with your toes and working your way up your body. After a comfortable period of repeating this, focus on how your body feels. Notice the anxious symptoms abating. While breathing, it may help to shift your focus. Find something to look at, outside a window or something that is interesting or comforting; a focal point. Notice the detail of your focus, its colour, shape, form and function etc. You could try using an elastic band and gently snap it against your wrist to ground yourself. Or gently tapping finger tips on your chest. Concentrate on these motions while continuing to breathe slowly and steadily. Exercise can help. You might be sick of hearing this advice, particularly if your anxiety renders you housebound, but physical activity is proven to help. Take that first step, then a short walk, and increase the distance and time as you gain confidence. Walking is a great complement to your refocusing exercises. There are so many things in nature to shift your focus to. Be in the moment and be mindful of what is around you. Listen to birds singing, to rustling leaves, and the smells of flowers. These all help to distract your mind from the anxious thoughts. Suffering from anxiety can bring with it thoughts of shame and wanting to hide what you are experiencing. There is nothing to be ashamed of and, if people around you know what you are going through, they can support you as you deal with an episode. It is helpful to understand your condition more, to hear of other people's experiences and know that you are not alone. A great book is ‘Anxiety for beginners – a personal investigation’ by Eleanor Morgan. She shares her own experience of anxiety in an accessible, personal, and at times humorous way, which can be important to break down barriers. Eleanor tried a brave experiment with her partner, Hannah. She asked Hannah to write a ‘real and honest’ passage about her experience of the worst period of Eleanor’s suffering with anxiety. Eleanor worried not only what Hannah thought of her anxiety but also how it impacted on her life. The aim was to get Hannah's actual thoughts rather than what Eleanor assumed she thought. The result was a very supportive passage. I wouldn't recommend this if you are at a particularly vulnerable stage with your anxiety and/or if you are not in a stable and supportive relationship. However it demonstrates how the worry of what others think – which can in itself risk the onset of an attack - can often be far from the reality of what others actually think, and people may be more supportive than you realise. Overall its about finding the right support and help for you, but that journey starts by reaching out. So start now.
Useful resources ‘Overcoming Anxiety’ Helen Kennerley ‘Overcoming Anxiety, Stress and Panic: A Five Area Approach’ Chris Williams ‘Overcoming Panic and Agoraphobia’ Derrick Silove ‘Panic Attacks – what they are and why they happen’ Christine Ingham ‘My Age of Anxiety’ Scott Stossel ‘Anxiety for beginners – a personal investigation’ by Eleanor Morgan.