Suddenly your heart starts beating triple time. You can feel it pounding in your chest, your head and down your legs. The roaring rhythmic thud dominates your attention. It feels like your chest is going to explode.
Ever had a panic attack?
Sweat coats the palms of your hands. You get an urge to shake them—as if that will release the uncomfortable feeling. You shake them. A toxic feeling jets through your stomach like a shooting star. You feel sick. And you're not breathing. You're reacting to a threat. Not by a ferocious saber-tooth tiger. No, this threat is psychological. It's anxiety. It's actually not even real.
Or maybe it started in your head this time. Your mind's stuck like a broken record, obsessively replaying an imaginary future. You try to manage it. But the future cannot be managed. Your anxious thoughts trigger the fight/flight response, and cortisol and adrenaline flood throughout your body. These bad boys cause your physical reaction, preparing you to run from that tiger. But in reality you're just sitting there trying to cope with what lies ahead, which is impossible in the present moment, when you think about it.
Then your mind notices how the chemicals make you feel: the speeding heart, sweaty palms, and shaky body. Panic sets in and your mind races faster. And then more chemicals are released. So you feel more anxious. Then more anxious thoughts come. You spiral downward, gaining momentum, until you crash into a full-blown anxiety attack. You feel like you're going to pass out, or worse, die.
The anxiety tiger has eaten you alive. But you can learn how to take control back. You can get free. Even if the anxiety is less intense.
Believe it or not, you can use your mind-body connection to outsmart your anxiety.
If you've ever had a panic attack, you know exactly what I'm talking about. I've had so many, and I got free. I've recovered from social anxiety, generalized anxiety, PTSD, agoraphobia, freeway phobia, panic attacks as well as fear of dogs and public speaking. And it was using the below tools and understanding how my body works that allowed me to break free. It was a true mind-over-matter triumph that requires trust, and moreover, a connection to the physical body. When we use our minds to connect to our bodies, we can control the nervous system and, in turn, our anxiety.
Now it's your turn. The next time you feel anxiety coming on or notice your anxious thinking, try these five things:
Here's your anxiety attack playlist: Try these the next time you feel that wave of nerves.
1. Rub your belly.
Anxiety is in the future, and our bodies are in the present moment. So when we do something physical, something in the "now," we have an increased ability to move our attention off of the future tripping anxiety and place it in the moment. We can start by using the body as an anchor.
Try rubbing your belly, rubbing your hands together, or rubbing your thighs. Then bring your attention into the physical connection, the spot where your hand meets your belly. When you are focusing on the physical connection, you are safe from the anxious thoughts and grounded in the present moment. It may feel odd at first but the more you try this, the better you will become at letting go of the anxious thoughts.
2. Take three deep mindful breaths.
Focusing on our breath is perhaps the best way to jump off the anxiety thought spiral because our breath is always in the present moment AND taking deep breaths activates our parasympathetic nervous system, which literally calms down our nerves. It is our sympathetic nervous system that causes us to "fight or flight" and feel the anxious feelings through the release of adrenaline and cortisol. And activating our parasympathetic nervous system shuts off the sympathetic nervous system and stops the further release of these chemicals that manifest as anxiety.
Go ahead and take a deep inhale through your nose. Bring your attention to the air as it goes into your nose. Then keep your attention on the air leaving your nostrils as you exhale. Try closing your eyes and see if that helps you concentrate on your breath. Continue rubbing your belly if that's helping. The more you take these deep mindful breaths, the more you are guiding your body to calm down.
3. Count your breaths.
Let's peek into our brains for a second. When we are triggered, our emotional center—the amygdala—is essentially overriding our rational and logical brain area (the neocortex). So during this fight-or-flight response when the stress chemicals are being released, our amygdala has, in a way, "hijacked" our neocortex. To help stop this flood of chemicals we need to activate our neocortex. As simple as it sounds, counting is an excellent way to do this.
So while taking deep breaths, count. Count up to 5 while you inhale, then continue counting to 10 as you exhale. Start again with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 on your next inhale then 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 on the next exhale. Keep counting and focusing on your breath, resting assured that these simple tools hold the key to stopping the downward anxiety spiral.
4. Release your muscles.
When our minds are tense, our bodies are tense. And vice versa: A tight body leads to a tightly wound mind. So when we consciously relax our body, we also help to relax our mind.
Go ahead and drop your shoulders, using your full attention to relax them. Next unclench jaw and relax your face muscles. Now scan your body for any tension and relax it as you go.
5. Write it out.
If your mind is still racing, despite your best efforts, grab a pen and paper and start to write down whatever is coming to mind. Don't worry about whether it makes sense; just get it all out, whether it's stream of consciousness, a to-do list for later, or a 10-page essay. Getting the thoughts that have been racing through your mind out on paper can help release them from your mind. It especially helps to write them physically as opposed to typing them because your brain processes them better.
Continue the deep mindful breaths. And the counting. And the belly rub. Each time you practice these you are practicing bringing your attention—your most valuable currency—to the present moment. These tools are strengthening your "attention muscle," the exact thing that you need to strengthen in order to quell anxiety and return to the present moment. As your mental resilience grows, so does your mental freedom.
Keep it up. Your brain can change. Mine did. Go get 'em, tiger!