Hello, everyone! My name is Dr. Robert Duff and I am lucky enough to be Joelle’s husband. I also happen to be a clinical psychologist and the author of a couple books on anxiety and depression. I wanted to come on the blog today to talk to you a little bit about anxiety and how to start managing it just a little better.
Anxiety is a very common issue. In this day and age, we are thankfully more comfortable talking about mental health, which has led many to be more open and honest about their struggles with anxiety. If you search twitter for #anxiety, the life feed is overwhelming. It affects people from all walks of life, regardless of gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation. On one hand it sucks that so many people feel that they have to deal with anxiety on a daily basis. On the other hand, it is encouraging because anxiety is much easier to identify and treat than many other emotional issues.
Despite the fact that many people throw around the term anxiety quite casually, it is sometimes hard to define exactly what anxiety is, so let me do that for you right now. At its core, anxiety is the fight or flight response. Remember that thing they taught you in school? When you are in the middle of the jungle and suddenly a lion pops out from behind a tree, your body has a built in mechanism to get you the heck out of there. Your heart starts beating faster to pump more blood to your muscles, your breathing increases in speed and intensity to bring in more oxygen, your skin sweats to keep yourself cool under pressure, and so on. This is a super awesome mechanism that comes in the default human package (thanks, evolution!) and it is beyond helpful when you need to run from a predator or save your family from someone trying to mug you. Not so helpful when you are sitting at your computer staring at a blinking cursor on a blank page, trying to get started on the work that you have been putting off while you refresh Instagram over and over. The thing about anxiety as opposed to a legitimate fight or flight response is that there is no real danger. Your body and mind trick you into feeling a sense of danger and as a result you get this false alarm that makes you feel really terrible.
Here are some of the common symptoms of anxiety:
- Shortness of breath
- Heart palpitations
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
- Upset stomach
- Muscle tension
- Racing thoughts
- Feeling out of control
- A sense of dread
Perhaps you have felt some of these before. Maybe you’ve gotten to the point that you’ve had a panic attack, which is when you have a sudden surge of these symptoms that makes you feel like you are dying, going crazy, or absolutely need to escape the situation immediately. This can drive some people to go to the emergency room thinking that they are having a heart attack. We definitely don’t want that. So let’s talk about what you can do right now to start tackling anxiety just a little better.
The first thing to recognize is that while your body is telling you that there is danger, more often than not you are not truly in danger. You are going to be okay either way. Nothing harmful happens to you when you experience anxiety or panic. It is absolutely uncomfortable and you will probably be sad and exhausted afterward, but you will not be injured by it. People don’t die from anxiety. If you are interested in reducing the impact of anxiety when it rears its ugly head, you should focus on breathing. Deep breathing (when practiced) is fundamentally incompatible with physical anxiety symptoms. Forcing yourself to take deeper, slower breaths kick starts the part of your nervous system that is designed to bring you back down after a fight or flight situation. The thing is most of us suck at breathing, so we need to learn how. You might have had the phenomenon of trying to breathe your way through anxiety and then freaking out and becoming more anxious because it “isn’t working.” That’s because you need to practice breathing.
Think of breathing for relaxation as a skill. Just like you wouldn’t want to try to shoot a bow and arrow for the first time when you are being attacked by a predator, you also don’t want to try to breathe your way into relaxation when you are already in the midst of panic. Instead, you should practice breathing techniques throughout the week during times when you are least stressed. Learn to get in touch with your body and feel what it feels like to jumpstart that relaxation process. There is no one right way to breathe, but here is a simple method that works wonders for many: 4-7-8 breathing. It’s so simple. All you have to do is breathe in for 4 seconds, hold that breath for 7 seconds, and then breathe out for 8. You can count faster or slower depending on your comfort. The idea is to keep repeating this pattern until you feel relaxation set in. Like I said, you need to practice this. When you are first getting started, I would suggest doing this 3 times per week for at least 10 minutes. That way you can learn how to flip your own relaxation switch in a controlled and unpressured way. If you get the hang of this skill, you can use it when anxiety does pop up in life. Instead of operating completely on that fight or flight instinct, you can take a moment, acknowledge the situation, breathe yourself down to a more manageable physical state, and move forward.
If you find that you are chronically anxious or you find that you have so much anxiety over the prospect of having a panic attack that you begin to feel panicky on your own, you may want to look into getting some additional help. Psychotherapy is a great option for both common everyday anxiety and more severe anxiety disorders. There are also some very effective medications that can bring your overall state of anxiety down a notch or help you out in emergencies. If you are going to go this route, please be sure that you see a specialist like a psychiatrist. While your primary care doctor can give you medication for anxiety, they are not trained in the nuances of it. Finally, if you want to learn more about anxiety in general and some other coping strategies, check out the wide array of anxiety self-help books that are out there on Amazon (pro tip: audiobooks are great if your anxiety makes it hard to read)!
All About Anxiety first appeared on Joelle Charming.
Check out Natural Remedies for Easing Anxiety