I’ve heard the symptoms many times: can’t catch your breath, heart beats very fast, you’re worried, it feels like you can’t sit still, and it feels like the world is crashing in. What you’re feeling is anxiety. Let’s take a look at the neuroscience of what it is…. in short anxiety is the body’s reaction to a perceived threat (real or imagined). It’s when the autonomic nervous system kicks in to overdrive and reacts with a fast heart rate, digestion slows, and the brain loses much of it’s blood and rational thinking. The reason is that the body is under threat and during this threat we need to RUN, so our blood needs to go to our extremities and our heart, so we can escape. When our ancestors were under threat, they didn’t stand there and think, “hmmm there’s a bear, should I run?” No, our ancestors didn’t have that kind of time, so their body automatically took off or prepared to fight. Fortunately, we don’t have many bears chasing us through the streets of Los Angeles, but we do have constant stress, which turns on the fight/flight or freeze reactions, thus we live in a constant state of anxiety. The constant stress does cause the fight/flight or freeze response, since the brain can’t delineate whether it’s a real threat or not.
What are some things that you can do to help alleviate the symptoms? The most important thing to remember is that you will not die. You may feel like you are when the anxiety takes hold, but it’s important to understand that you won’t. When anxiety takes hold, stop, sit down, close your eyes, and take 10 deep, slow, deliberate breaths. I know it’s hard to do in the moment, but do your best. If you can, sit up straight, close your eyes, and slowly tap each leg with your hand, alternating tapping on each leg. It’s also important to tell yourself that you are safe, everything is ok and this will pass. Keep saying that until the feeling moves through.
Understanding what anxiety is can be helpful to understanding how to manage it. More people than you can imagine suffer from this, but it is manageable. It’s important to work with a professional who can arm you with tools to use before, during, and after an anxiety attack. Help is available, you just need to reach out.