Ask the Therapist 

Question: “Can you tell me more about anxiety and panic, particularly how to disrupt anxiety symptoms as they are intensifying?”

Dear Reader, 

Anxiety can be experienced in a variety of unique ways, and each person may have a different way in which they “see” their anxiety symptoms present. This will not be a catch-all of what anxiety is and is not. In a highly stimulating and fast-paced society, it can be easier to ignore our feelings and bodily sensations. Yet simultaneously, it is those same fast-paced, stimulating experiences throughout the day that are contributing to more people having increasing symptoms of overwhelm, physical health issues and such – making it more and more difficult to avoid our feelings altogether. So, if you are experiencing some level of anxiety right now, know that you are not alone. Many people, even myself, struggle with it. And although I do not want to necessarily normalize high levels of anxiety, I do want to reiterate that the way in which we are living our lives and the amount of change, stress, and discord that the world is moving through, it makes sense that many are experiencing it altogether. 

It is appropriate for the body to produce some level of intense energy from time to time – particularly in situations in which there may be a threat of harm or an experience of excitement. It is a beautiful mechanism of the body to protect us from danger. But when we are experiencing perceived levels of chronic threat and stress, these mechanisms can get stuck “on” and stay activated even when that threat/stress reduces or goes away. 

Anxiety can be described as a feeling of fear, dread, and general uneasiness. It can cause one’s body to feel tense, sweaty, and restless. Heart rate can be affected and some people experience nausea and dizziness as well. Again, these symptoms can be quite normal when faced with a stressful situation. But we want our bodies to be able to regulate back into safety and calm once that experience has passed. Anxiety becomes problematic when we begin to experience it in everyday safe situations in which there is minimal actual threat present. Panic can manifest similar to anxiety but oftentimes is more severe and intense in its experience both mentally and physically. It can be a large surge of symptoms that increases quickly and often without much warning, but also passes more quickly than say an anxiety attack. 

Understand that some of what is happening with the body during anxiety and panic has to do with the limbic part of the brain (particularly the amygdala or fear center of the brain) and a surge of various chemicals in the body that create physical symptoms. I want to stress to you that the brain and the nervous system are acting in your best interest, and it thinks it is keeping you safe from harm. It is why so many therapists and experts encourage mindfulness and something called CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) so that one learns to become truly aware of the present moment and aware that most perceived threat is false and to help the brain and body relax when it has become hijacked by stress. As more research is coming out on the body/brain connection – we are finding that anxiety is sourced through a deeper “faulty alarm” going off inside the body – in our tissues. With the right information and practices, it is possible to heal anxiety in the body. Neurotransmitters do affect your mood and can cause anxiety and panic, but your life experiences, emotions, and stress can actually change your neurotransmitters, too. By paying attention to what your body is saying through the symptoms of anxiety and panic, you can begin to notice and more deeply listen to the underlying needs that are not being met inside of your own body, heart, mind, and life in general. 

Healing is much more individualized than you may think. Based on your past experience, family generational trauma, culture of work and family, core beliefs, etc., is where a lot of the healing work can take place and one can discover what is really needed in the way of lifestyle in order to heal. I will; however, share a few evidence based techniques to help disrupt anxiety and/or panic. 

  1. Don’t fight it. Allow it to be there. Since anxiety and panic are an activation of our “fight/flight” system, when we become afraid and resist the anxiety – it actually only activates that part of the brain and those neuro-cocktails even more. One of my favorite mantras is from a program called “Primal Trust,” by Dr. Cathleen King. She encourages bringing one’s awareness to the present moment, naming what is happening, and then taking a deep breath with each word of the affirmation, “I AM HERE NOW IN THIS,” while putting one’s hand on the heart space. By doing this, you are acknowledging the present moment and allowing it to be what it is. By slowing down the breath, you are activating the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore creating calm biologically and mentally. 
  2. Eye Movement. Keeping your head straight forward, bring your finger to eye level – slowly moving it from side to side. Let your gaze follow your fingers. This particular practice is a tool to help the body and the mind relax through activating different areas of the brain. 
  3. Alternate nostril breathing is quite effective to disrupt patterns of anxiety/overwhelm. I would actually encourage people to practice this, as well as the eye gazing daily – especially before sleep or upon waking. There are many YouTube videos instructing this breath work. 
  4. Walking is also a way to stimulate the two hemispheres of the brain and create a balance in the body. Walk slowly if you are in a current anxiety activation, as fast walking can in some ways stimulate the anxiousness and heart rate. 
  5. Nature, pets, and hugs from someone you love. Coregulation is a profound way to decrease anxiety and increase the neuro-chemical cocktail that creates feelings of connection, love, and feelings of safety. 

By Jackie Paulson

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