How Anxiety Takes Us Captive
Do you ever feel anxious and wonder what you can do about it?
Anxiety is a stress response reaction to what the body and brain perceive as a threat. Hang out with me for a couple of minutes and find out a little more about yourself and how to calm your activated amygdala, whose primary job is your overall safety.
If you are having tightness in your chest, sudden shortness of breath or shaking that has nothing to do with physical health issues, or you worry about upcoming events and lay awake at night with racing thoughts, you may be experiencing anxiety symptoms.
Other symptoms of anxiety may include:
· Panic attacks
· Feeling nervous and restless or all keyed up
· Shaking or trembling
· Sweating and shortness of breath
· A feeling of impending doom
· Difficulty concentrating
· Worry and racing thoughts that keep you up at night
· Frustration and agitation and impatience (irritability)
· Tense body and tight shoulders
· Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
· Dodging social situations (or some of the above symptoms before you go or once there)
· Fear (these can be irrational fears of what could happen) The irrational ‘what if’ movie you keep playing inside your mind.
Who Needs Anxiety?
We all do. Even the experts agree that some anxiety and stress is a good thing, but why? Without a little stress, we might not have a reason to get out of bed or go to work. Small levels of stress motivate us and keep us excited. According to Katharina Star, PhD in her article, The Benefits of Anxiety and Nervousness, anxiety can warn us that something isn’t right, and we need to do something about it. For example, if we’re in a bad relationship, dead end job, or real danger is lurking, this anxiety pushes us to do something about it and change our patterns or life. The danger is when anxiety gets out of hand and controls us, our mood, and how we function in the world.
Some anxiety is good, but unhealthy doses are telling us something deeper. Anxiety can also be a symptom of an underlying unresolved issue from your past. When we get triggered and our stress response is activated, we lose control and our stress controls us. It’s important to do the real work in getting to the core of these issues, and that may include finding a professional counselor who’s a good fit for you. It’s vital to have tools to deal with these anxiety symptoms through self-regulating the stress response. Once you’ve gotten good at self-regulation and dialing down the stress response, then it’s time to get to work on how the past affects the present.
How to calm the overactive amygdala and get relief from anxiety
When the amygdala is activated by a perceived threat it sends oxygen to your arms and legs to help you run away or fight, leaving less oxygen in the brain for logical thinking. In order to get more oxygen back into your brain there are several techniques you can learn and implement to help your brain re-calibrate. Some of these can be combined comfortably or done individually.
· Deep Breathing (3 seconds in through nose/hold 4 seconds/purse lips out 8 seconds
· Grounding Techniques (Rubbing bare feet on carpet/feeling gritty or soft textures)
· Visual imagery (imagine a safe place where you are alone with nature)
· Progressive muscle relaxation exercises (Tightening and relaxing different parts of the body)
· Thought Stopping
· Noticing the body
· Notice your surroundings (nature, birds, A/C sounds, etc)
Diaphragmatic breathing calms the overactive amygdala and brings together your emotional and reasoning abilities so they are working together again. Try breathing in three seconds through your nose while pushing your belly out. Hold it for four seconds, then purse your lips and exhale through your mouth for eight long seconds while relaxing your body completely, starting at the neck and moving all the way to your toes.
Slip off your shoes and close your eyes. Notice how the carpet or flooring feels against your bare feet. Rub your fingers together or across a rough or smooth texture like a chair handle, piece of cloth, or your pet. Stay focused on these textures while breathing.
Close your eyes and imagine a place of peace you could transport to. Let your mind take you there; it's you and no one else. A place that would instantly make you feel calm and relaxed. Is it the beach or the mountains? Are you by a stream in the woods, or in a snow-covered field? Nothing bad has ever happened in this safe place. Breathe in and out as you imagine yourself in this place and notice your surroundings. What does it smell like? What does it sound like? What about all the colors? Notice everything. Take it in. Now name this place and use it often.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
PMR teaches you how to tell the difference between a relaxed and tense body.
First, tighten different parts of your body instantly: shoulders, hands into fists, thighs, jaw, etc. Hold for a few seconds then instantly release and further relax this part of your body. Notice the difference in a relaxed muscle body and a tense muscle body. NOTICE! Do this with your legs, arms, shoulders, buttocks. Learn to tell the difference in a relaxed muscle body and a tense muscle body.
Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts. Guard your heart and your mind through thought stopping. We can’t prevent thoughts from popping in but we can stop them from hanging out there and influencing our mood. When the thought pops in think about what you would rather feel, and what you would rather think, and then examine when in your life you felt it or did it or thought it. Notice that. Embrace those happier moments. Replace negative thoughts with truth. (You can and you are). Usually these negative ‘should have, could have, and would haves’ are not the reality and only a comfortable worry we punish ourselves with.
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 2 Corinthians 10:5 (NIV).
Notice your Body
Get reacquainted with your body by noticing your emotions, feelings, body tension, and try to journal these sensations, both when you’re upset and when you’re happy and relaxed. If you haven’t been dealing with your issues in years, chances are you haven’t been noticing your body sensations because these feelings are uncomfortable to you, and you may distract yourself from them. A key factor in self-regulation is getting reacquainted with the body again; like an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Feeling again can be scary, but necessary for overall health.
Be mindful of your surroundings
Notice the sounds of nature, the wind, animals, and birds. Notice the taste of food and eat slowly, savoring every bite for its flavor. Notice people: their smiles, their eyes, their kindness. Notice what is good without grabbing onto the negative. Notice sounds all around you whether nature or man-made. Be present in the moment; don't travel back into yesterday or time warp into tomorrow. Be in the moment of today, the right now, and breathe.
We are surrounded by so much negativity and depravity that it is difficult to see any good, but good is there if we look.
Work on these skills until they become second nature. If performing these exercises is too uncomfortable, you may need the help of a trained mental health counselor. Working with a professional can be very beneficial when we are stuck.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Philippians 4:8 (NIV).
Lori Carol Maloy