So I am going to risk sounding a little controversial here but I am going to talk to you about why I don’t immediately advocate mindfulness, yoga and all that jazz when you are suffering from severe anxiety.
I know I did actually say that!!
This is why:
In my opinion when you are suffering from full blown anxiety your heart is racing, you have sweaty palms, you feel sick, dizzy , you are in the middle of full blown panic attacks, you don’t want to leave the house, you feel you may pass out, vomit, …. There is nothing worse than someone saying,
“Now just lie back and imagine you are floating away”.
No thank you, that is the last thing I can do right now.
Anxiety is real, like a punch…
Your amygdala is firing on all cylinders saying threat threat threat, red alert, something is seriously wrong.
Your frontal lobes switch off, which means you are not able to think straight, at all.
You are quite simply not able to float away into a relaxed state as your body and mind is telling you the complete opposite, stay alert something terrible is happening!
Anxiety attacks are the most horrible feeling you can imagine. And in my experience it can take a long time to begin to understand that the feelings you are experiencing are indeed anxiety. People report feeling that they are having a heart attack, or that the feelings are so strong they feel they are suffocating or about to die.
Recent statistics suggest 1 in 10 A&E attendances are linked to mental health and these figures have doubled since 2013. It is the severity of symptoms that leads a person to attend A&E, so imagine being told “There is nothing wrong it’s just psychological”. This can be devastating.
And so you begin to read up on anxiety and what to do to help, and nothing can immediately solve the symptoms, and taking medication may be a relief but may also add a host of accompanying side effects which you may not like or can often make things worse in the beginning.
All in all it makes for a pretty rubbish experience and what’s more, the waiting time to speak to someone is months. It is so isolating to need help and not to be able to get it when you need it can increase your feelings of helplessness. And guess what, this makes your symptoms worse.
Once you understand that this is anxiety, that this is a panic attack, the worst anxiety you can experience, and if you can understand what is happening in your brain and your body, your recovery has begun…but its complex and what is really strange is there isn’t always a clear trigger. You know when you over -do it at the gym the next day you feel pain in your legs and you think, “oh, that will be because of last night”, but anxiety can be tricky because depending on our personality, we may not recognise the pressure we have been under for perhaps many years and just kept going, or, a life event may have occurred causing upset at the time, you got through it and then “boom” after the event, when everything has settled is when somehow you start to experience the aftermath, why is that!!!???
In my experience with individuals, it can take a long time to come to that realisation. How on earth could these symptoms which are so strong not be something more serious?
So you tottle off to the doctor and they tell you there is no physical reason for these symptoms, it must be psychological. Does that mean I’m going mad?
Not at all, I guess it’s good news, it’s not the really serious thing you imagined, it means you can treat it psychologically….by understanding it and working on it! But how do you do that in the midst of such strong physical symptoms?
First thing is first, you need to get a grip on these symptoms, here are my first steps:
Once you understand what these symptoms are and of course rule out anything more serious, you know you are working with anxiety and that is where the work begins.
You need to understand it and realise it is nothing more serious…each time you have a panic attack you need to believe that this is a symptom of anxiety, not anything more sinister than that, because according to CBT this is what keeps panic attacks going, the misappraisal of the physical symptoms.. if you can imagine as soon as you tell yourself, “oh no I’m having a heart attack”, up goes the threat response and keeps the symptoms firing. It is hard to imagine, but what you are saying to yourself is literally moderating the physical response.
As soon as you tell yourself “it’s just anxiety, it feels awful but it’s just anxiety”, the feeling will begin to pass, it may take a while, but it will calm down.
Don’t believe me? I completely understand, not many of us immediately experience relief of the symptoms. This is where my second piece of advice comes in: measure this time it takes to calm down, and see it through until your symptoms begin reducing from 10/10 to 5/5, this should feel manageable…you don’t need to get rid of it, just bring it down to a manageable level. Statistics vary but panic attacks have been documented to last anything between 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 30 minutes and rarely more than an hour.
It can feel like an eternity but your symptoms will start to reduce, they have to, they can not fire continuously all day every day. When you see that the panic attack is finite, it does eventually calm down, you will begin to feel more hopeful that this condition does have a rhythm and we can get some control of our symptoms. I do recommend doing this with some one who you trust and someone who can help you understand anxiety in detail. Learning something when you are in a good frame of mind is hard enough never mind when you feel lousy.
Learning to use relaxation as a form of treatment is really important, treating yourself like a patient and practising the relaxation exercises 3-5 times per day for example will see your symptoms begin to decrease, you will feel some relief and importantly you will begin to feel more confident that you can achieve improvement in your mental health. The key is monitoring it objectively, take a score of your anxiety before and after to truly measure if there is a change.
You try to understand why this has all started, and to further confuse you, there may be triggers, you may be going through something quite awful at the moment, or there may not be no live triggers, utterly confusing!, Something quite innocuous, but nevertheless, anxiety says here I am to help, just keep alert, keep awake! This system is designed to keep you safe! And this system is one of the oldest systems in the brain designed to help you, but guess what, it doesn’t feel in any way helpful, it just feels awful.
In my experience everyone needs help when they suffer with anxiety, it is really hard to get a handle on this on your own while you are going through it. Let’s face it, it’s really scary… I go through anxiety from time to time, it wakes me up early, my heart is racing and my tummy is churning, it’s like there is a moment when I wake up when all is fine and then my brain downloads my life for 30sec and it all comes flooding in what I need to be stressed about. Before I used to get up and continue this feeling of stress but now I pop on my meditation app and have 5 mins of relaxation to try and begin to bring the levels of stress down before the day starts. It has taken many years of trying to let the good stuff in, trust me, I would write my shopping list in my head while the relaxation exercise was playing in the background! Now I just have 5 minutes or ten minutes if I can, and I note that my anxiety has decreased from 8 to 5, and I know I can get on with my day. I know I need to go back and tackle that 5 at some point to see if I can bring this down to 4 or 3.
Take my advice, get some support to understand how anxiety is affecting you. Do not short change yourself, seek professional help, or advice from someone who has been through it. Go back for more help and again until you are really living the changes. It has taken me years to truly have a handle on this stuff and I understand how busy lives mean we just have to carry on. But please pause before it all catches up with you and address what you need to address. No one ever regrets seeking help. In fact it’s just amazing to get to know yourself.
So totting off to a mindfulness course will not be the first thing I advocate…it may take a little while until you are ready for this work, In my opinion you need to be able to do the first steps I’ve suggested above to be able to bring the levels of calm into our mind and body to begin such work. Then you will be in a position to relax!