Clients will often come to therapy to try to work on their anxiety. Anxiety is a feeling that can impact your every day life both emotionally and physically. Anxiety is a natural human response to feeling under threat. Anxiety is demonised, but a healthy amount of anxiety is incredibly useful. Anxiety stops us from putting ourselves in real danger. It is the thing that stops us from just walking out into the road without looking both ways, for example. However, sometimes our “fear centre” sounds the alarm when it is not necessary and these are moments that deserve our attention.
Our brain takes account of all of the experiences we have both internally and externally. If something happens to us, such as we are attacked in a dark alleyway one night, then the brain records all of the information from the attack using our five senses to store away as being associated with a scary event. In some ways, this is really helpful. This may make us avoid dark alleyways int eh future having stored these as dangerous places. However it is important to note that all five of our senses are engaged with this, so maybe the dark alleyway was behind a bar and a specific song was playing or your attacker was a 6ft male with long dark hair. You may not consciously remember these facts, but they have been stored away as associated with this dangerous situation. In the future when you feel that you have processed the attack, maybe you are in a bar having fun with friends and the same song comes on and the man who approaches you to dance has a similar look to your attacker. Your internal alarm system may trigger you into fight/flight (sympathetic activation) even though you may not realise why as you may not make the conscious association. This is quite a glaring example of why you may be triggered, but there are many more subtle examples in our every day life.
When we are triggered into fight/flight, our body reacts by trying to take in more oxygen to feed our muscles, blood is diverted away from non essential activities such as digestion (which causes that feeling of nausea) and our executive function is limited. All of this happens so that we are prepared to deal with the anticipated danger. However, in our example in the bar, we are not actually in any danger. When we feel like this, especially when we can’t perceive any danger consciously, this can impact us as it can make us avoid things, such as leaving the house, as we don’t know why we are being triggered but we don’t like feeling the anxiety or potentially having panic attacks.
Feeling these levels of anxiety can feel really difficult and upsetting. There are some self help tools that can really help with the management of anxiety.
Breathing exercises. Getting your breathing under control and breathing in a mindful way can really help. Focusing on your out breath and really slowing that down is a bodily way of telling your fear centre that there is nothing to fear at the moment. As you breathe out, try to let go of any tension you are holding in your body – most commonly in the shoulders, the forehead, the jawline and the hands.
If you suffer from chronic anxiety, a daily meditation practice can help to get you grounded in the moment and stop “time travelling” to possible anxiety ridden possibilities.
Grounding techniques can really help in the moment. Get your breathing under control then look for 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Take your time over this and really go into the details of each of these things. This is another thing to ground you in the “now”.
Get moving. Quite literally shake it off. When you see a gazelle that has survived being chased by a lion, you see them shake it off then go back to grazing. Sometimes your nervous system needs you to physically shake off the tension.
Engage with a trusted person. When we go into flight/flight it inhibits our social engagement system. By reconnecting with trusted people, this can bring the social engagement system back online. You can start by looking them in the eyes and listen to their words of reassurance.
Therapy can be really helpful to unpick what is happening in your unconscious that is causing your anxiety to trigger. Once you can get to the root of the issue, you can make decisions on how to deal with it consciously. Please get in touch if you would like to work with me to unpick some of this with you.