image by MIKKO ITÄLAHTI
In this podcast I’ll be talking about how to use coping skills for anxiety attacks to protect yourself from getting swept away by the awful thoughts and physical symptoms that anxiety can suddenly spring on you.
Anyone who’s suffered an anxiety attack knows that one of the most disturbing things is it’s very definite physical presence. You might be feeling fine one minute and then feel completely overwhelmed by a suddenly racing pulse or pounding heart. Some anxiety sufferers become dizzy and feel like they might feint, some have trouble catching their breath, or feel they might choke, and some fear that they might loose control, or even die.
Anxiety causes such chaos in the body that your mind develops a strong reaction to the event and will do all it can to protect you from it happening again. Unfortunately, the way the mind does this is by creating fear of the fear. Fear is fine if it manifest as wariness on the edge of a cliff, or caution when using hot ovens, but it becomes a big problem when it develops in response to an internal event like an anxiety attack.
An anxious mind will try and protect you by urging you to avoid any place or situation where you have experienced anxiety in the past. This avoidance is your mind’s way of trying to protect you. It’s the same thing as a phobic response. If something scares you intensely once, your mind will try and protect you by keeping you wary of that thing to keep you safe from harm.
How Anxiety Spreads and Takes Over Your Thinking
The trouble with anxiety and phobias is their all pervasive nature - the mind becomes so scared that you are going to have that horrible experience again, that it starts making anxious predictiarea that spill over beyond the area where it happened before. Thoughts like: “What if a I have an anxiety attack here?” “What if I pass out during my presentation?” “I could crash the car if it happens when I’m driving.” These catastrophic thoughts start flooding the mind in exactly the same way that a person who’s terrified of spiders might start looking at all the possible places a spider could be lurking.
The Anxious One Track Mind
Instead of anxiety being contained to a small area of your life and the rest of your life continuing unaffected, the mind will feed you anxious thoughts that soon have you boxed in by the threat of repeat episodes. Everything shrinks and the world of the anxiety sufferer becomes small and dark.
What tends to happen with an anxiety spike is that we get caught up in the symptoms of anxiety and start imagining all the things that could go wrong. We picture all the things that we desperately don’t want to happen and that makes us more anxious which produces more adrenaline and before we know it we’re spiralling out of control.
In reality, anxiety is like dramatic weather. Like a big thunder storm, or a whirl wind, anxiety rears up and wreaks absolute havoc - but then it passes. And one of the most self-supporting things that you can do in managing anxiety is to understand this: that it strikes and it leaves.
Many of us were scared of storms when we were small. I remember my daughter being afraid of thunder and us trying various things to help her feel safe and more relaxed. Eventually we discovered that she was most comfortable with settling on an explanation that sounded OK with her. She decided that she would think of thunder as the noise clouds made when they bumped into each other.
End of thunder fear. What was previously something really scary became a natural event that could be accepted without upset - and nothing changed but her way of thinking about it.
Those who know how to guide the mind into more resourceful thinking call this reframing and it’s a very effective way of getting more comfortable with unpleasant thoughts.
Reframing can be of great help to you in managing panic attacks.
The first step is to find a way of thinking about anxiety that feels temporary and less threatening. Like bad weather, for example.
Then you can make space to understand that it’s the nature of anxiety to sweep into the body suddenly and to cause dramatic symptoms but it will not hurt you. It feels like it will, but it won’t.
Just like thunder sounds like it might be dangerous to a small child - but it isn’t.
Animals can remain scared of thunder for their entire lives because they don’t have rational intelligence to help them reframe things. But you do. You can change your thinking, and you can reduce the intensity of a panic attack with the power of your understanding.
Here are some tips to help you...
1. Catch it early
By developing increased awareness of the early stages of an anxiety attack you can protect yourself from the shock of an episode that has already gathered momentum beneath the level of your conscious awareness and suddenly blows up in your face.
Most people will jump if they hear a sudden clap of thunder when they didn’t notice a storm was coming. But those who noticed the atmosphere change and saw the darkening clouds are ready for the storm and won’t be shocked by it.
When you notice the early warning symptoms of your anxiety you get the chance to diffuse it before it builds to the level of a storm. The earlier you notice any signs of discomfort the earlier you can take action. That action might be using the Quick Anxiety Stopper, or one of the anxiety breathing techniques you can find outlined on our website.
An anxiety attack is your body shouting at you that it needs help. When you develop awareness and catch things early, you will get the message when it is being spoken, or even whispered and when you act at that time, you can help your body feel heard before it needs to shout. In other words, when you can notice the early warning signs of anxiety and know some effective calming tools that you can swing into action fast - you can avoid being caught out in a storm.
2. Discharge Stress Daily
To be really thorough in managing your anxiety it’s helpful to spend some time every day discharging stress or anxiety from your body before it gets the chance to build up into something more pressing.
3. Practice Supportive Self Talk
If you do find yourself caught out by a panic attack, remember the power of reframing. Find a way to limit the intensity by thinking of the episode as something temporary that will pass and leave you unharmed.
Try and step back and observe it as you might observe the weather. Just watch and wait it out. Don’t let anxiety sweep you up in its drama. Slow your breath and tell yourself that this will pass and you will be OK. By keeping your self mentally calm and centred you can prevent anxiety from escalating.
Remember: an anxiety attack doesn’t last forever - it comes and it goes. And the more you and protect yourself by building the mental equivalent of a storm bunker using effective coping skills for anxiety attacks, the stronger and calmer you will feel.
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