How to deal with anxiety
Last week I experienced one of those lucky moments, I was in a long queue at the supermarket checkout when suddenly the light belonging to the till next door changed from red to green. I dashed over, stepping aside to give an elderly gentleman from the other side first place.
I watched the cashier running his things through and noticed she was particularly fidgety. As she continued to pass things through the scanner, she tried to take deep breaths. None of the attempts satisfying enough. At one point I observed her wince in pain. With many hours of my week focused on anxiety I began to wonder whether this was her being her or it was the beginnings of a panic attack. As she asked the gentlemen for payment, I noticed her struggling to speak.
I only had a couple of items and as she scanned them through, she stood up, gasped for breath, and quickly told the people in the queue behind me that she was closing. I felt torn. I could help this lady, but I had my six-year-old with me, did not know her and was attempting to talk to her through a tiny post box size hole in a screen, unaware of her feelings around social distancing. I made the decision to step away giving her space to disappear quickly to her staff room, in the hope that it is a safe space for her and that she knows how to deal with anxiety.
Below are my top three ideas for you when you find yourself in a similar situation.
When anxiety strikes it is your brain preparing you to run or fight for your life. Whatever it has decided is a threat to your life is right there. Everything that happens is a normal physiological reaction, sadly at an unnecessary moment. Your muscles, including your chest muscles will tighten. This makes chest breathing feel more difficult and increases your fear. Ideally, we should all breathe abdominally.
Abdominal breathing is most easily practised by placing a hand over your belly button and breathing so that your hand rises and falls (rather than your chest). Abdominal breathing relaxes the body and is the way you will naturally breathe when regenerating, such as when asleep.
It is the most efficient way to bring enough air into your lungs. Practising abdominal breathing regardless of how you feel means that when you experience a moment of anxiety it will feel natural to you.
The five senses
When your brain moves into danger mode and you feel the symptoms of anxiety, the amygdala in your brain takes over pushing your prefrontal cortex out of control. When you use your five senses you use the parietal lobe, related to anxiety but irrelevant for the five senses exercise. The five senses exercise is a mindfulness technique that brings your mind away from the anxiety and back to the present moment. The technique counts from five down to one using all five senses so you identify and notice:
- 5 things that you can see
- 4 things that you can hear
- 3 things that you can feel
- 2 things you can smell
- 1 thing you can taste
Some people like to always keep a sensory bag with them, a purse size bag for instance, filled with little bits that will use your senses and bring you back to the present moment. Essential oils, nuts and dried fruit, pictures, various textured material, and some relaxing music will enable you to use your senses wherever you are.
Mindfulness is too big a big topic to cover fully in a short part of this piece. However, there is a snippet of mindful living that can be brought into your life if your anxiety is more specific. I have recently worked with a young man. He experiences anxiety at bedtime with a lack of confidence in his ability to remember whether he locked the front door. This results in him finding himself getting out of bed at all times of the night to check.
I spent some time explaining how those who live mindfully practice living in the moment. We spoke about a group of monks who go for a daily walk. On their walk they have the task of noticing a different stone each day. They pick the stone up and explore it, using their senses to familiarise themselves with the stone in their hand.
I suggested my client do two things when he locks the door:
1. To prevent his mind disappearing off elsewhere leaving him with little memory of the door locking I asked him to ensure he is fully engaged in the moment. Notice what the key feels like as he takes it in his hand. Listen to the turning of the key, feel the intricacies of the door lock as he turns the key, acknowledging and therefore creating a memory of the moment.
2. Just like the stone exploration exercise, notice a different thing about the moment every time he locks the door. This, he reports, has helped him because if he wakes in the night with the sudden anxiety and the question in his mind of whether he locked the front door he can refer to the unique memory of that evening.
Now you know how to deal with anxiety in your life, practising these exercises regularly enables prevention so you may find you rarely need to deal with anxiety suddenly.
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