Learn to Love Your Anxiety-Part 2: Ten Seconds to Regain Control.
by Carolyn Dallman Downes
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of what anxiety is all about, I’m going to let you in on a little secret you can use to calm yourself down when you feel yourself starting to lose control. This trick will not actually “cure” your anxiety (that’s a whole other kettle of fish), but it will help you ground yourself, so you can deal with whatever is happening at that moment.
The secret is this: when we are feeling anxious, we are usually holding our breath.
Big whoop, eh? You’re asking, “How can this help me calm myself down?” Well, when we are holding our breath, we are not able to take any more air into our lungs. So, eventually, our brain starts to send out panic messages, like “Hey, I’m dying up here! I need more oxygen!” But when we try to take in more air, nothing happens no matter how hard we try, because our lungs are already full.
After a few unsuccessful attempts to take a breath, the brain starts to get really frantic, because as far as it is concerned, if it doesn’t get oxygen within a matter of minutes, it really is going to die. So the messages it sends us are downright frantic and this is what people experience as a “Panic Attack”. If it gets severe enough, we can indeed become completely incapacitated or even faint (in which case we start to breath normally and come back to consciousness).
Because “Panic Attacks” are so frightening, some people become anxious just thinking about them! They will go out of their way to avoid anything which might cause one in the future. If they were riding a bus, or crossing a bridge or eating a particular food at the time they had one of these attacks, they will cease to do these things as a way of avoiding the terrible feeling of impending doom. Some people become so anxious their lives become severely hampered–they can’t fly, or drive a car or ride the subway, do math–whatever. Some folk get to the point where they cannot leave the house.
(Of course, the problem with all of this is that the brain is confused. It thinks the threat is coming from somewhere outside of the body–something in the immediate environment. Since this is rarely the case, no matter how many things people give up, they still end up feeling anxious. But we will come back to that later.)
By now, you have probably figured out the secret to short-circuiting a panic attack, so before I get to the big reveal, I hope you will allow me a brief digression. Have you ever wondered why, when someone starts to panic, they are given a paper bag and told to breath into it? I just thought this was some kind of superstitious folk-lore until I realized that, in order to inflate the bag, you have toto breathe out, and when you breathe out, you create space in your lungs. Voila! Now you can breath in! Once you start to get some oxygen into your system your brain stops sending out panic messages and right away your anxiety will start to diminish.
When I am working with someone who suffers from anxiety, often the only sign is that their breathing is constricted. When I notice this, I ask them to become aware of how, or if, they are breathing (usually they are not). Then I ask them to breath OUT as slowly as they can, counting all the while. I tell them the eventual goal is to try to breath out for ten whole seconds.
Try it right now! You will probably find, unless you are a pearl diver or a yoga type, that ten seconds is longer than you realized. So, don’t worry if you don’t get to ten, just exhale as slowly as you can for as long as you can, while counting to see how far you can get. If, for example you get to seven, then, when you breathe in, make your in-breath a little shorter, say to the count of five. The important thing is to emphasize the OUT-Breath, in order to increase your lung capacity. Now, repeat this procedure, slowly breathing out and in, ten times. At the end of this time, observe how you feel. If you are like most creatures who breathe air, you will probably feel calmer, more centred and grounded. It’s amazing what a little oxygen can do for a poor, deprived brain!
Now, this little breathing technique will not “cure” anxiety. What it will do is help you get control of your dis-ease in the short term. It will also give you a greater sense of confidence, because you will be learning that anxiety is not coming from something bigger and more powerful outside of you; in fact, it is being generated by your very own brain. I recommend you practise this every day for five minutes when you are not feeling anxious, so when you really do need to calm yourself, you will already be familiar with the technique and confident in its effects.
At this point, you are probably asking yourself If I am ever going to get to part where I explain what you can do to actually change the way you deal with anxiety. Unfortunately that will have to wait for another day. For now, I recommend you practise the technique we have been discussing, and get ready. In Part Three we will start to get down to the nitty-gritty of where anxiety comes from and will learn why it is actually our friend, rather than something to be feared and mistrusted.