What is it?
It might not be fun, but experiencing anxiety symptoms is a normal and natural part of the human experience. In fact, every person on the planet experiences anxious feelings every now and then. This is because anxiety is a natural, automatic mechanism that protects us from danger and, in moderate amounts, helps us perform at our peak.
However, anxiety can become problematic if it lasts for too long, never seems to go away or stops us from doing things we want or need to do. In these cases, it can be useful to understand a bit more about anxiety and how we can manage it.
How does it work?
When we’re in the presence of danger, the brain sets in motion a number of responses which help us to survive and keep us safe. Hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol enter our blood stream and cause physical changes in our body to help us to either fight or run away from the threat. This is often referred to as the ‘Fight/Flight’ response and causes many common anxiety symptoms. Here is some of what happens within the body:
- Blood rushes from our extremities and internal organs to our big muscle groups – this causes nausea, “stomach butterflies”, irritable bowel, sweating, hot flashes and going “red in the face”
- Our muscles tense up – this causes stiffness in the neck and shoulders, headaches and can cause us to be fidgety or restless
- Our heart beats faster, shallower and stronger – this can cause dizziness and light headedness and if we begin to panic, can make us think we are having a heart attack (not fun!)
- Our brain focusses on scanning the environment for danger – this can make it difficult to concentrate, make us feel “on edge” or irritable and makes it difficult to relax
These physical changes are helpful when we actually need to escape immediate danger. But, here’s the kicker… our brains cannot tell the difference between real immediate danger (like a hungry lion chasing us down the street) and what is called “perceived danger”. This is anything that our brains think is dangerous but is actually safe. Perceived danger includes negative thoughts and feelings such as negative memories from the past, worries about the future, feelings of inadequacy, loneliness and regret. As complex humans who never stop thinking and feeling, our list of “perceived dangers” is long and when we experience these, our body is kicked into fight/flight mode.
So, what do we do about it?
To manage anxiety symptoms, we can use some simple (and free!) strategies that turn off our fight/flight response such as deep breathing. They key to using any strategy is regular practice. This allows our brain and body to respond well to the strategies when we need them most. This means practicing each day, when you’re feeling okay and before anxiety peaks.
If you google ‘deep breathing’, you will be overwhelmed by thousands of breathing techniques. However, you only need to remember 2 key things:
- Deepen the breath – we do this by imagining our breath entering deep into our belly. You might like to place one hand just below the belly button and notice it rise as you inhale. This is a good sign you’re breathing deeply. Try to keep your shoulders relaxed as you breath deeply.
- Slow down the rate of the breath – when we are anxious our breathing quickens. To slow it down you can focus on exhaling for longer than you inhale. You can do this organically or you might like to count until you get the hang of it.
Try out the steps below and see how you feel.
Inhale (deep into the belly) for 4 counts -1 2 3 4
Pause for 2 counts- 1 2
Exhale (all the way out) for 6 counts -1 2 3 4 5 6
Pause for 2 counts -1 2
Practice for 2 minutes each day and notice how your anxiety responds.