What is the wave of anxiety and how can I ride it?
The fight-or-flight response which we all have, is something which, when our cavemen ancestors lived in constant danger of being attacked by wild animals, kept them from harm. However this primitive part of all of our brains still creates feeling in response to things that don’t warrant such a reaction.
Panic feelings can start when bodily sensations are misinterpreted, these can be caused by a change in your emotional state (anxiety, anger, excitement) or some innocuous event such as drinking coffee (causes palpitations), getting up suddenly from sitting (dizziness, palpitations) or exercise (breathlessness, palpitations). Physical sensations that would be processed as normal, not alarming, or not registered at all by non-anxious individuals, are selectively attended to and perceived as more dangerous than they really are and interpreted as an imminent physical or mental catastrophe.
It can help to reframe these as normal everyday feelings which come and go. The less you engage with them, the quicker they will go. Noticing the feeling, labelling it and then carrying on in spite of it, you are not fuelling it further but allowing it to run its natural course. The feelings will go if you learn to ride them rather than fight them.
When we feel flooded with anxiety and panic it can leave us feeling out of control and overwhelmed. The symptoms one experiences are very physical, so much so that it is not uncommon for people to think they are having a heart attack because of the cardiac sensations such as a racing heart, shortness of breath and hot and cold sweats. These symptoms occur because your nervous system has been flooded with the stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline which kick start our fight-or-flight mode. The misattribution that these physical symptoms indicate a life threatening ailment serve to further fuel the panic feelings. In therapy we call this a vicious cycle.
It is helpful to identify the things we are doing during panic attacks to try to solve the problem, because often it can be that, that is causing the problem to become worse. The more we look for danger (in this case symptoms of anxiety which are being perceived as a physical problem), the more danger we see (the more anxiety symptoms we get and the more convolved we are that something physically bad is happening).
A mental debate about the symptoms ‘why can’t I feel them now, maybe they will come back, and what if they are worse next time?’, ‘what if the feeling never stops and it causes me to go mad?’, ‘what if it happens when I’m at work and people notice and think less of me?’. This paradox, is one which we also see when people try to control their thoughts. The very thing we are doing to try to help ourselves, in fact makes the problem worse.
You can gain control of your panic attacks by trying not to control them.
A strategy for coping with anxiety is to practice riding it out, rather than trying to resist or fight it. By recognising the feeling and carrying on in spite of it, you are allowing it to run its natural course. The feelings will go if you learn to ride them rather than fight them.
Panic attacks are not dangerous, they feel that way, and therefore can feel extremely frightening. They will not cause you to do anything you don't want to do, they will not cause you to "go crazy”, they will not make you stop breathing, they will not kill you and they WILL always go away.
With this knowledge you are in an informed position to have a go at a different approach. To acknowledge the feelings (rather than ignore them or try to block them out), but not focus on them or engage in a fear focused mental debate causing an unhelpful viscous cycle of anxiety and panic.
3 Simple Steps for Riding the Wave of Panic and Anxiety
Recognise and accept that you're feeling anxious.
Shift your attention externally. Involve yourself in your external surroundings. Look up, look around, pay attention to what is going on around you. Listen to the different noises near and far, loud and quiet. Notice colours and sights. Engage with all of yours senses.
Move your attention to actively engage in an activity - do a task that uses your hands, have a conversation with someone and really pay attention to what they are saying, sing along to some music. The aim is to engage fully in the present moment.
This approach may not come easily to you and will take some time and repetition to learn.
If you are struggling to manage these feeling or have a long history of having panic attacks you it may be very helpful to talk with one of our online therapist who will be able to guide you through a personalise programme to overcome these feelings.
Alternative strategies such as self talk, telling yourself to calm down during a panic attack, can sometimes lead to further worry about feeling unable to calm down, which can cause it to take longer to ‘ride' out the wave of anxiety feelings. Other strategies people are told to do involve breathing slower and more deeply, however, this can have a paradoxical effect. If you tell yourself to breathe deeply and slowly you are likely to pay attention to your every breath which can cause you to breathe faster and more shallowly.
Learning to shift the focus of attention from internal scanning and mental debate toward and the scanning of bodily symptoms onto the external environment really can help you ride the wave of anxiety back to the shore.
You don't have to try to make the panic feeling end, it will end by itself when you stop fighting it. Put your weapons down, pick up your surf board and learn to surf the waves.
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Cognitive Behavioural Therapist