Anxiety is fear. It is a message from our brain that something is wrong and we are in danger. Often, the danger is not truly present, at least not to the degree that our mind is telling us it is. But the body does not know this. The body reacts as if the danger is genuine, immediate, a profound threat to our physical integrity, even our life.
Sometimes the anxiety itself becomes a threat to our safety. Suicide has many accomplices, and anxiety is among them, especially when it triggers agitation or a panic attack. Perhaps you have felt so tormented by anxiety that you wanted to kill yourself. Even if anxiety does not drive you to consider suicide, it still can feel miserable.
What are ways to cope when anxiety sounds a deafening false alarm yet the danger feels very real and immediate? There are two pathways to take, and taking one in isolation of the other is not always successful. These pathways are cognitive and physical. In this post I will describe physical ways to cope, and I will follow up soon with a post about cognitive techniques for coping with anxiety.
Calming the Body
Anxiety is not all bad. We need it to survive. In ordinary situations, anxiety can move you to meet deadlines, obey the law, avoid hurting others, and take other actions necessary to avoid negative consequences. In extraordinary situations, anxiety can save your life.
If you are hiking in the woods and see a mountain lion, your anxiety sets into play physical reactions designed for survival. You become hyperaware of your surroundings. A surge of adrenaline gives you energy to flee. Your heart rate and breathing increase. Your mind screams at you to flee, fight, or freeze, whichever will keep you alive. You are prepared to act.
These responses are adaptive in the woods with a mountain lion, but what if you are alone in your apartment or standing in the grocery store, reacting as if a mountain lion is just a few feet away? What if, in fact, any danger you sense is the product of your active mind or memories of past trauma? Your body goes through the same motions, even though there actually is no real danger in the moment.
An important way to calm your physical response is to ground yourself in your body in the present moment. Assuming you are not truly in danger, your mind has transported you to the future, a land of what-ifs and maybes. Or you might find yourself in the past, remembering or fearing a past trauma that feels like it is happening again now. Even though you actually are not experiencing trauma right now, your body has responded as if your life were in peril.
To bring yourself back to here and now, try anything that increases your awareness of your body as you experience it at this moment. These are called grounding techniques, because they ground you in the present moment as it is now, not as you fear it to be or to become. (Of course, I am assuming that you are safe in the present moment. If not, please take action to protect yourself. If you are safe, remind yourself of that. You can even say aloud, “I’m safe right now in this moment.”)
Many grounding techniques are described online and in books, and I include a few powerful ones below. It is important to note that, even as you try to remain focused on your physical sensations or immediate surroundings in the moment, inevitably your mind will wander. You will get lost in your thoughts. When this happens, return to your present focus without judgment.
- Observe your breath. Notice your breath as it enters your mouth or nose. Follow it as it travels to your lungs. Feel your chest or belly move in response. Make note now of what happens when the breath leaves your body and another enters. Is there any overlap? How much space exists between the exhalation and inhalation? Observe the many aspects of your breath again and again. You might even count your breaths, or picture them as a specific color or as a wind that passes in and out of you.
- Focus on the physical feeling. Place your feet on the ground and sit up straight if you are sitting; if you are standing, place your hands on a surface. Note how it feels to be planted where you are. How do your feet feel? Your butt? What other physical sensations do you observe? If your heart is racing, note what that feels like without attaching any thoughts about its significance. Observe as the pace of your heartbeat fluctuates. If you do observe with judgment, try to watch the judgment as it passes through your head, without holding on to it, encouraging it, or giving it a hospitable place to grow. Be a witness to your body.
- Engage your senses. Dialectical behavior therapy calls this skill “soothing the five senses”: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. You can do this in many ways. One example is to get a piece of ice and hold it in your hand, noting the sensations. (Be careful not to hold it too long in one place, to avoid frostbite!) Take a soft fabric like fleece or velvet, or an abrasive material like a rock or sandpaper, and run your fingers over it. Notice how it feels on your fingers. Now run it softly along other parts of your body, like your arms or legs. Pay attention to the sensations. Focus solely on them. Do similar exercises that engage your sense of smell (for example, smell a piece of food or flower), taste (have a piece of candy or something salty and pay full attention to the experience), hearing (you can listen to a favorite song or even a song you detest, to give you something to focus on), and sight (focus on specific objects and describe them in detail).
- Pay keen attention to your surroundings. Count all the instances of a specific color in the room. Notice where straight lines occur. (One mathematically inclined person I know counts the right angles in the room.) Listen for sounds. Take in the smell, if there is one. This grounding technique can incorporate your five senses, as well, while using only what is immediately in your presence.
- Watch an object’s physical movement. Run water in the sink and watch as it leaves the faucet, hits the surface, creates bubbles, circles down the drain. Intensely focus on how it changes in appearance as it moves. Or you might light a candle and observe the flame’s dance, or watch leaves rustle on a tree. Whatever moves, observe all the facets of its movement: the changes it undergoes, the sights you see, the sounds it makes. When you look closely at something in movement, you might be surprised by what you see.
- Practice focused mindfulness. All of the above exercises encourage mindfulness of the present moment and whatever you observe in that moment. You can also try activities that focus more fully on fostering mindfulness. These include meditation, mindful eating, mindful walking, and yoga. A great place to learn more about the practice of mindfulness is Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, The Miracle of Mindfulness.
- Exercise. Taking a vigorous walk or jog can help you release some of the anxious energy that bounds inside your body. While exercising, try focusing on the physical sensations you experience.
Many of the above techniques for physically coping with anxiety can help trigger a relaxation response, which in turn calms your body. For more information on techniques to ground you in your body in the present moment, try The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook, by Martha Davis, Phd, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman, MSW, and Matthew McKay, PhD.
What are Your Ways of Coping?
Do you have methods of coping with anxiety that are not listed here? Please feel free to share! You can submit a comment in the box further below.
© Copyright 2015 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com.
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