Today as I was driving, I felt a familiar constriction in my chest.
Then I sighed.
Followed by a yawn, and a second sigh.
Oh dear – I thought to myself – I’m in fight or flight mode.
Now, recognising this in itself is an amazing feat. As someone who has struggled with anxiety since I was six, it has taken me upward of 20 years to learn how to read these warning signs in my body alerting me to an impending ‘danger’ created by my mind, and my mind alone.
That doesn’t make an anxious onset any simpler to manage though. Once it arrives, the only thing you can really do is ride it. Lucky I have a tool kit of ways to manage an anxious spiral – and part of that is acknowledging it for what it is.
Yep, I still get anxious from time to time. But moments that used to leave me in a panicked state, hyperventilating and gasping for air, rushed to emergency in the most extreme moments (three times to be exact) because I was convinced my throat was closing up, or I was dying, are now few and far between.
My last panic attack was February 2016. 18 months ago.
For those of you who have experienced anxiety (or universe forbid, a panic disorder) you know how exciting a feeling it is when the gaps between your last episode get longer and longer.
Now don’t get me wrong, this has been years and years in the works. My rock bottom in 2015 saw me having panic attacks weekly, if not daily. This whole way of living without panic is relatively new for me in the scheme of things, and something I continue to work on.
So today, when that familiar feeling rose in my chest, sinking my stomach, blurring my vision and making me want to run scared – here is what I did instead…
Sat with it
I really noticed it rising as I was driving – I guess because your mind can really settle here. I noticed the chest breathing, the sick tummy feeling, my mind with a million tabs open, and almost laughed to myself “hello anxiety”. One of the easiest ways to diffuse feelings of anxiety is to NOT resist it. Because a lot of the time feeling anxious can make us feel MORE anxious – why is this happening, what if I stop breathing, what if this becomes a panic attack, should I pull over, but I have been doing so well, why now?
You guys know what I mean. Instead, I acknowledged it for what it was. My body perceived I was in danger because of the way I had been behaving over the last week or maybe even month. Fight or flight response is our bodies way of PROTECTING us. So I thanked my body for doing this, but also reminded it – aloud – that all was okay.
I repeated the following affirmation until I really FELT it: I am safe. I am relaxed. I let life flow effortlessly.
Focused on my breathing
Then, I directed my attention straight to my breathing. The only way to get our bodies instantly out of fight or flight mode, is to elongate our exhale breath. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THIS STEP.
Here’s why it works:
Back when we were cavemen, fight or flight mode would switch on when we needed to get ourselves out of danger and to safety – you have all heard the sabre-tooth tiger analogy yeah?
A few physical changes need to take place to get our bodies to safety – and quickly!
One of the first things that happens, is our breathing shallows to our chest.
Because when we are running from danger, we don’t have the time to take deep inhale belly breaths do we?
This is why, when we feel anxious or nervous, you might find yourself yawning or sighing or finding it hard to catch your breath. It is because our bodies think they are doing the right thing by us.
The thing is, today we are engaging fight or flight like never before – and this can have detrimental effects including sore chests, feeling like you are going to pass out, hyperventilation and even false sense of heart attacks.
Makes sense right? Because we aren’t often in a life or death situation when anxiety sets on.
Which is why, the easiest way to remind our body it is safe, is to breathe deeply into your belly, and exhale for as long as you possibly can. Do this until the shallow breathing subsides – you have told your body it is safe. You can’t run from danger and belly breathe at the same time. (Another reason to make meditation and/or yoga a daily practice!)
Acknowledged WHY I was feeling this way
I started to curiously question where my anxious onset stemmed from. But this is important – it wasn’t in a worried or judgemental way. More like a curiosity – hmmm, I wonder why my body thinks it is in danger?
This was easy for me to pinpoint – with Lola going into surgery on Tuesday, I knew my adrenaline levels were peaking, and truth be told probably hadn’t done enough to level them out again once her surgery was over. So my adrenals were fired up and ready to POP because I was pushing through the last few days, not taking too much solid rest time for myself.
In acknowledging the WHY, I was able to reiterate to myself there was actually nothing to be worried about, that everything was okay (as it always is) and that there was nothing my body needed to protect me from.
Spoke to someone (a few people actually) about it
I am lucky to be surrounded by amazing friends and family who ‘get’ what anxiety is like, and how it can flare up out of nowhere. The worst thing we can do as anxious folk is keep it all to ourselves. Sometimes – scrap that, all the time – the best thing is to just admit how we are feeling, and talk it out with someone.
I spoke to my Dad (who has had his own battle with anxiety and is a wealth of knowledge and understanding), one of my besties and my partner.
It’s nice to have people who hold space for you – who let you speak, and know not to say ‘Just don’t worry’ (never tell an anxious person not to worry). Find your key people and have them on speed dial the next time an anxious flare up arises (because it most likely will).
Actually – on that. If you have anxiety, it is highly likely that no matter WHAT you try, you will feel more anxious than usual at times. That is not to say you will always have panic attacks. But it is also just a simple reminder that too often we set ourselves up for failure in thinking this will go away forever.
Rather than thinking in this way, start to learn how best to manage your anxiety so that your moments between episodes get longer and longer. That way, the next time an anxious spiral does arise, you are prepared rather than shocked.
Took the afternoon off to rest
I got home from my full day, with a bunch of items on my to do list (including writing this which is meant to be sent tomorrow morning) and ignored them all.
I put on my trackies, took off my bra, cancelled my evening appointment, and dived under the covers and slept for 2 hours. Fight or flight is super taxing on our bodies and we must do all we can to recalibrate when we notice we are operating from an anxious state. It tells our adrenals not to worry.
Once I finish writing this, it will be bath time with my lavender oil, and some trashy TV (although is the Bachelor REALLY trashy? #amIright?)
Fuck I love a good cry. All of that pent up energy and anxiety has to be released guys – in holding onto it, we set ourselves up for a lovely panic attack – which I know we don’t want. Just let it out, there doesn’t need to be a reason why. I cried for a good couple of minutes, and that was all I needed. I know the me tomorrow will thank me for it, when I wake up feeling more energised and less anxious.
There is a real power in putting words to the page. Never underestimate writing as therapy – it is why us wellness folk swear by our journaling. When we write, we are literally pouring the words and thoughts and worries from our minds, out onto the pages – leaving behind a much clearer mental state than before. Then, we can work on filling our mind back up with beliefs and thoughts that truly serve us – this is where gratitudes and affirmations come to play. You cannot be anxious and grateful at the same time. Empty out those worried minds and replace your thoughts with positivity.