Anxiety can have a debilitating effect on your life; from the out and out cold fear you feel every day that something terrible is going to happen, to the physical symptoms of chest pain, shoulder and neck tension, headaches, nausea, palpitations and clamminess.
If you suffer from severe anxiety you’ll know that finding anything that can help even reduce symptoms a tiny bit would be a godsend.
I also know this as I have suffered with anxiety. For a long time I didn’t realise what it was; I just noticed I felt like there was danger everywhere, and I didn’t understand why others couldn’t take that threat seriously. When I was driving I would imagine I would be involved in a terrible accident. Every ache and pain I felt like I had a terminal disease that no-one could detect.
At one point convinced I was having a heart attack, I had to call an ambulance. I had pins and needles in my hands and feet, stabbing pain in my arm and pains in my chest, further increased by the fear that I felt I was dying.
To those who have never suffered with anxiety, this may seem ridiculous, but to those of you who have, this probably feels very relateable.
I am learning to manage this in different ways. I have changed my job to one that is less stressful, because I believe that to be largely the cause of this particular anxiety.
Using mindfulness, which I have practiced for many years, has been the one thing I think that has kept me able to function fairly normally; as a wife, a colleague, a manager of staff, and a daughter.
It’s what helps reduce the panic attacks, and the anxious thoughts, and allows me to live again.
Mindfulness and anxiety
Many studies have show mindfulness to be effective as a treatment of anxiety, and depression. This US study identified mindfulness based therapies moderately reduced anxiety. These studies show the effect of a mindfulness course undertaken, and how it reduced depression and anxiety by over 50% in some cases.
Mindfulness can help with anxiety because it’s about bringing you into the present, observing your thoughts non judgementally and letting them be rather than fearing or fighting them.
Often with anxiety – thoughts and worry can be so endemic that you’re worrying about something which may or may not happen in the future, and the more you worry about it, the more other physical symptoms develop.
Mindfulness anchors you in the present which helps reduce those feelings of worrying about the future.
Physical symptoms of anxiety – the fight and flight response
Anxiety is essentially a step on from our fight or flight responses. Historically our prehistoric ancestors needed these to ensure that if a great big mammoth was about to kill them, then they could sprint off to danger, helped by a big dose of adrenalin, or if that wasn’t possible that they would have the superhuman strength to fight the danger if possible.
In today’s world, you’d think we no longer need those responses, and essentially we don’t often. However our bodies and hormones haven’t evolved to realise that.
So when we get into what are modern stressful situations; difficult jobs, a bereavement or illness, difficult family times etc. our body still produces these responses. Over a prolonged period of time, this can become worse and worse, as our adrenalin levels rise.
Adrenalin is a hormone which is produced in times of stress. In small doses, before an exam, a big speech, or a job interview can be really useful.
However when we have prolonged periods of anxiety and the body is constantly in it’s stress response, our body triggers the release of adrenalin and other hormones regularly; increasing our blood pressure, our breathing and our heart rate on a regular or sustained basis which can also damage our health.
Your muscles also become tensed, ready for you to fight or get the hell out of there, and so when you are regularly stressed, that’s why you can suffer aches and pains, muscle tension, chest pain and shaking.
Blood rushes to the muscles, brains, legs and arms, which can make you pale or flushed, and your body’s blood clotting ability increases to prepare for significant blood loss. Oxygen also increases, and this is what causes the palpitations and hyperventilation.
I’m telling you all this because we often focus on the emotional responses from anxiety – the worry, the tension, the fear, but actually the physical symptoms are really scary, and can make you more panicked.
It helped me to understand my body is doing exactly what it should do in a stressful situation, and that actually when I understand what it’s doing I can also use mindfulness to calm these responses down. In turn this also helps with the emotional responses.
How can mindfulness help?
Mindfulness has lots of different elements that work so well with anxiety.
One of the main ones for panic attacks and onset of anxiety is concentration on the breath. Our breath becomes shallow and quick in anxiety, and this can cause us to feel lightheaded and again can heighten further anxiety.
Taking deep slow belly breaths can really help. Don’t worry about a number, or how many. Take a deep breath in through the nose, focusing on the breath, how it feels as it comes in through your nostrils. Is it cold? How does your nose feel as you breathe? Take it right into your belly, and let your belly expand as far as it will go.
Then let the breath out, very slowly, and for longer than your in-breath. Feel your belly deflate, and really you’re focusing on how your breath feels as it comes in and out of your body, and how your belly expands and contracts.
At this point that’s all your focusing on. This can help the panic and anxiety subside because you’ve moved your focus to the present; to just breathing. You’re not putting an expectations on doing 5 breaths, or 10 breaths. Just on as many as you feel you need. You are trusting your body to know what is right. You are bringing compassion to your body.
Another technique which is good for anxiety is grounding. So essentially you’re bringing yourself into the present, where usually you are safe from harm, and you can bring yourself away from anxious thoughts.
So take a minute to look around you – find five different things you can see – don’t go into thinking about them, just acknowledge five things. Right now for example I can see a lamp, a solar nodding pug, a hat, a laptop and a mug.
Then find four things you can touch. So my hat feels soft and woolly under my hand. There’s also a purse on my desk made of leather, and that’s nice to touch because it’s soft and smooth. My phone is also on my desk, and it has an outer case of rubber and plastic, so I touch that. My lamp is made of metal, and is cool to the touch, so I can touch that too.
If I’m driving and worrying about something I can do this too – I feel my feet on the floor of the car, the seat underneath me, my hands on the steering wheel, and I feel my gear stick which is made of metal.
Then find three things you can hear. So right now I can hear the clickety clack of my fingers on the keyboard, my dog licking her lips (she’s just had breakfast) and a car in the distance.
Two things I can smell – this is a difficult one as I have a bit of a cold, but you might be able to smell the coffee in my mug, open the window and smell the earth, the flowers. If you’re at home, try smelling different foods or scents from your make up bag even.
And then one thing you can taste – I am going to taste my coffee. You could eat or drink something, or if this isn’t possible – pay attention to the tastes you have in your mouth now.
The whole aim of this grounding technique is to bring you into the present- while you’re working all this different senses, you’re bringing your body away from the anxiety, and this will be calming you down.
Meditation is more difficult if you’re experiencing anxiety attacks, and I would use the first two examples for these times, but meditation is excellent for reducing stress in the long term, and helping you relax.
When people think of meditation, they often think of long hours of sitting cross legged chanting, or listening to spiritual music.
Meditation is simply turning you focus towards the present moment and letting go of thoughts. You can meditate just by doing your belly breathing, or by listening to some relaxing music, or by listening to a recorded spoken meditation. It’s your call as to what works best for you. 10 minutes a day will help reduce the stress hormones as your body will be soothing itself, and it will be telling adrenalin ‘It’s OK the woolly mammoth has gone- you can relax now’. Over time this can have significant benefits on anxiety.
If you live near York in the UK, you can practice all these exercises, and find out more about meditation, mindfulness and anxiety at the Managing Anxiety with Mindfulness workshops I run. They run every three months, and include a range of exercises to help manage and reduce anxiety.