Your heart races, it feels like an elephant is sitting on your chest, your inner voice babbles nervously, your palms feel damp and the jangling feelings of panic crowd in.
You’ve been ambushed by anxiety.
Anxiety can be frightening. It often seems to appear from nowhere. It can undermine your confidence, steal your social life and rob you of the things you used to find joy in.
And yet, anxiety is your own, personal alarm system.
Your amygdala is your own personal guard dog, watching over you and listening in on your innermost thoughts. It’s poised to trigger your fight or flight response if it suspects danger. This, in turn, rallies your body’s resources to fuel a rapid retreat or an attack. This area of your brain stores emotional memories and remembers situations that have been difficult for you in the past. So, for example, the amygdala of someone who was bitten by a dog will respond quickly to the sight of a dog, gearing them up to run away or stay and fight. The pounding heart and oxygen pumping to your skeletal muscles are all designed to carry you to safety, but this response isn’t usually the most appropriate in modern life, where your trigger is more likely to be a crowded room or an awkward conversation than a raging tiger!
Interestingly, the fight of flight response can be triggered by events that are real. Or imagined. The amygdala can’t distinguish between what happens in your mind and what is real. If we get into the habit of worrying a lot, this internal alarm system can become a bit over sensitive, like a fire alarm whose high-pitched ring reverberates through your home when you burn the toast. The alarm is deliberately unpleasant so that you won’t ignore it and you’re forced to investigate. Having checked that there’s no real fire, you simply turn the alarm off, and everything returns to normal.
Often, the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety can be enough to make you more anxious. The physical responses are designed to fuel action so when we don’t use that energy, the racing heart, narrowed focus, shallow breathing and oxygen drenched muscles can feel uncomfortable, to say the least. If you don’t know how to turn it off,
over time, heightened anxiety can become something of an over-zealous security guard, overreacting to every trigger.
How to reprogramme your anxiety alarm:
Our thoughts shape our feelings, so changing our thoughts can change the way we feel. If you’ve ever tried to push a beachball under the water, you’ll know that it always bursts right back to the surface. Trying to supress your thoughts has a similar effect. Instead, you need to challenge them. You can do that by asking these questions:
Most people have heard that deep breathing is helpful when you feel panicked or anxious but taking big gulps of air can mean taking in too much oxygen, which makes you feel worse. What you need are calm, controlled breaths through your nose, breathing into your belly, for a count of four, and out for a count of eight. You can adjust the count to make it comfortable.
Just as you can be triggered into a panicked or anxious state, you also have triggers, which tell your body it can relax.
Think about what these are for you: perhaps you have a place where you feel calm, a calming hobby, a person or pet in your life that you feel safe with. It might not be possible for you to actually go to that tropical beach, be enveloped in the arms of a loved one or pick up your knitting needles right now but, closing your eyes and imagining a soothing trigger will have a similar effect.
One of the simplest ways to calm your anxiety alarm is to interfere with its wiring.
Because this activity involves both sides of your brain, keeping it busy, it becomes difficult to keep ‘doing’ the anxiety.
Another useful tool is mindfulness. For our purposes, mindfulness is simply the deliberate effort to be fully present in the current moment: a cuddle with a loved one, the sound of bird song or your favourite tune, a tasty meal, a beautiful sunset.
Use your senses to pull yourself into the here and now. Whenever you notice that you have drifted into thoughts or visions of potential problems, gently tug yourself back with questions like: what can I see? What can I hear? What can I feel? What can I smell? What can I taste?
Create A System That Works for You
To successfully reset your inner alarm, you need a routine so, try out the techniques and find the one(s) that work best for you then use them consistently. Each time you interrupt anxiety, you are reassuring your body, and resetting your inner alarm system.
Kerry Dolan Hypnotherapist and nLP practitioner