May 1, 2009

What Anxiety Really Is and How to Short-Circuit It

The word anxiety is only a label.

We use it to describe a set of physical symptoms we experience and the ensuing thought habits. Believe it or not, the physical symptoms of anxiety happen faster than you can think. The thoughts you have about those physical symptoms are your mind’s attempt to explain them.

Let me say that again: The thoughts you have about the physical symptoms of anxiety are your mind’s attempt to make sense of sensations that originate beyond the reach of conscious thought.

No wonder anxiety is such an elusive, confounding problem for so many people.

What we call anxiety is both a regressive trance state and, for many sufferers, the result of plain old biochemistry.

What Do I Mean by Regressive Trance State?

The term “regressive trance state” is a fancy way of saying that anxiety happens when an event triggers a fundamental fear experience that occurred sometime in the past. Our thoughts obsess over the worst possible outcome, somewhere “out there” in the unknowable future.

Quite literally, when we’re in the state of anxiety, we are in a terrible past and an unknowable future at the same time.

I used to experience anxiety whenever a dog came near me. As it happens, I was attacked by a dog when I was a child. The event was so traumatic that the presence of any dog could trigger the symptoms of terror. My mind projected an outcome based on a past experience.

That’s anxiety. An event occurs, and we’re struck by a range of physical sensations that can include sweaty hands, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, and a host of other symptoms. We react with an almost irresistible urge to either fight or flee.

Biochemistry Doesn’t Help

A second cause of anxiety is biochemical. Our bodies are unique sacs of chemicals. My biochemistry is different from yours, as your is different from anyone else’s. That’s why no one pill works for all people.

The sad truth is that anxiety medication works for about half of the symptoms experienced by half of anxiety sufferers.

Which is to say that it doesn’t well work at all.

I’ll go more into the biochemistry of anxiety later this month.

Right now, let’s focus on what we can do to regain control of our bodies and our minds.

Gaining the Upper Hand

Regaining control of your body and mind requires that you:

  1. Develop effective tools for snapping out of an anxiety attack.
  2. Develop the Habits of Mind that keep you present. That includes getting rid of what I call “head weasels” or automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), and then choosing what you will do with what happens outside of yourself and your control.
  3. Identify any biochemical triggers that may be contributing to the problem. Such triggers include food allergies, inadequate nutrition, or exposure to various toxins in the environment (both natural and man-made).
  4. Develop the Habits of body required to offset and repair biochemical triggers.

I created a process I call Anxiety Triage to help me and my clients break out of the anxiety cycle.

Anxiety Triage

Anxiety Triage is a technique that snaps you out of an anxiety attack and into the present moment. I’ll give you tools you can use to short-circuit anxiety attacks in a matter of seconds.

The type of Anxiety Triage technique you use depends upon whether you’re an auditory, visual, or kinesthetic thinker. Although we all have elements of each thinking mode in our makeup, most people have a dominant mode.

The starting point of Anxiety Triage is the same for all of us, however. It’s called the 30-Second Check-In.

The 30-Second Check-In

When you find yourself in the throes of an anxiety attack, observe your physical sensations. What’s going on in your body? To the best of your ability, make grounded statements about your symptoms. “My neck muscles are tight,” is a grounded statement. “My neck muscles are unbearably tight” is not.

Scan your body, starting with the crown of your head and moving down the neck, shoulders, back, torso, belly, hips, thighs, calves, and feet.

That’s the 30-Second Check-In. Perform this simple process and watch your anxiety attack begin to subside. It’s the key to Anxiety Triage, because it brings you back into the Creative Moment.

Once you’ve done a 30-Second Check-In, you’re ready to reorient yourself and reclaim the energy trapped in the the anxiety trance.

Now, pick one of the following techniques to completely break the hold of the anxiety attack.

Anxiety Triage Technique #1: What’s That Sound?

Identify the sounds you hear, one at a time.

Start by identifying the closest or more obvious sounds. Let’s say you’re driving in your car. So the first sound you identify is the radio. Listen to it for a moment, and pay attention to nothing else. Shift your attention then to the next sound, perhaps the whoosh of the wind rushing by your window. Next, listen to the sound of the tires on the road surface. Now the sound of the vehicles around you.

Finally, see if you can hear all the sounds at once, without focusing on any one in particular.

When done, you will be completely present — and much calmer.

Anxiety Triage Technique #2: Name That Thing

Name everything around you, speaking its name aloud.

Start by identifying the closest or more obvious items. Back in the car again, you might start with the black steering wheel… the red speedometer… the blue car hood… the green pickup truck that just passed… a silver Mercedes… a white Toyota.

Continue until you have returned to a calmer state of mind.

Anxiety Triage Technique #3: Tapping

Tap several pressure points on the body until the anxiety attack subsides. (This is not a good technique to use while driving.)

Start by finding the sensitive spot between and just above your eyebrows. Using the middle finger of your right or left hand, tap that spot 32 times. Use even pressure.

Now locate the tiny indentation in the eye socket just below your right eye. Gently tap this spot 32 times. Repeat with the left eye.

Tap 32 times behind the right earlobe. Repeat with the left earlobe.

Next, cup your right hand so the fingertips all touch. Find the spot on your sternum in the center of your body, in the location of the heart. Press that spot using the fingertips of your right hand and firm but comfortable pressure hand. Adjust the position until you feel a sudden release of tension in the shoulders.

Though this technique might seem a little odd, there’s nothing magical about it. You’re simply stimulating various pressure points and, in so doing, initiating the body’s natural relaxation reflex.

Use What Works

Any technique is a good technique so long as it does no harm and gets the job done. The three I’ve described above have proven effective for my coaching clients. One of them will work for you, too.

Remember they are Anxiety Triage techniques, designed for immediate relief. I’ll provide more techniques in the next few newsletters.

More importantly, I’ll show you how to work through the process of anxiety until you have the upper hand. You’ll never have to experience another anxiety attack.

More to come!

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