The primitive mindset of a human has two phases: fight or flight. The flight phase is designed to run from a danger or predator and the fight stage is where all senses are heightened and response to the stressor is to stay and fight against it. In either flight or fight, the body is tense, ready for action of either kind, and on edge.
In modern society, we do not need this fight or flight method of fighting stressors, as we are not often under attack from a predator and we do not often need to stay in uncomfortable situations and “fight”. Despite this, the world is still full of people who are in fight or flight mode often, if not daily.
I certainly was in fight or flight mode daily for about 10 years of my childhood: always on the lookout for danger, always ready to either stick up for myself or run away, always wondering what was round the corner (figuratively not literally of course). Anxiety is a normal response, and can sometimes even be a good thing as it can keep your adrenaline levels up and often makes you perform better, however, it can also be an individual’s biggest problem as they face daily life.
To worry is awful…to have constant anxiety is more awful…and for the worry and anxiety to amount up to a panic attack is totally awful. Anxiety can make you feel isolated, scared, vulnerable and unable to carry out daily, even mundane, tasks in fear of fear itself! So so many times I have been told, “there is nothing to worry about”, but that doesn’t help. The rational mind knows there is often nothing to worry about. The primitive mind is always on edge, always ready for fight or flight.
My anxiety shows itself in many ways, and often in totally normal, day to day tasks or activities for which most people come easily. For years, when I was around 8-12 years of age, going to school was a massive stressor for me. This was primarily (I have since discovered after breaking it down and analysing my behaviour) due to the fact that I did not want to leave my home and leave my Mum unprotected from my stepfather, or felt like I needed to control myself as I could not control my home life. This anxiety showed it’s (very ugly) self in the form of severe panic attacks: out of control breathing, feeling like I was going to die, shaking, trembling mouth etc. Not only this, but my behaviour in response to this included acting out, kicking, screaming, refusing to eat, punching, making myself sick, crying and clinging to my Mum, begging her to let me stay home. Despite this, as soon as I got to the school gates, I was absolutely fine and had no problems!
When I was in secondary school, I had bulimia, where my anxiety was based around food. This meant that anything I did eat, I threw straight back up by force, and often skipped meals, didn’t eat for days on end, and often refused to even drink. I developed (and still have to this day) an anxiety that people were watching me when I was eating, that I would be sick after food, and that if I had anything in my body then I would be out of control of it. I felt my best and my most in control when my body was totally empty.
At 16 years of age during GCSE’s my anxiety and panic attacks only worsened. This was around the time that things were the worst in my home life, as my Mum’s marriage was breaking down. My jaw tremors were so bad that people were beginning to notice when I spoke (I looked like I had had a stroke!), my whole body would tremble, I would be sick, my heart would be beating so fast it felt like it was going to leap out of my chest, and I felt like I was going to die!
Even to this day, certain situations trigger my panic attacks, such as eating out with friends or family, weddings or get togethers, exams, certain new situations, but I find the problem these days is the fear of fear itself. I am constantly worried that I am going to get that sinking feeling in my stomach, and get all the symptoms of a panic attack. The fear is also that people will think less of me, think I am out of control, wonder if I need help, and I give away the illusion that I am doing okay!
Despite this, I do have my anxiety fairly under control, and for someone who thought the only way to end the fear of every day life was to in fact end my life, I think I’m doing pretty well.
I have compiled a list of ways that I try to calm myself down, either in the situation (confronted with the stressor) or leading up to it.
1. Deep breathing: I know everyone says this, and I used to think it was a load of old waffle, but controlled breathing really does help. Not a few breaths in here and there, but making sure you regulate your breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth. It often helps me to hold my breath for a few seconds in between. This works by not only calming down your heart rate, but giving you something else to think about and can often be a welcome distraction.
2. The Power of the Pet: You’ll notice that a strong theme around my posts is animals. I honestly believe that animals are the best cure for any stress in your life. Whenever I am anxious, I stroke my Millie dog and give her a cuddle and usually stroking a cat or dog (or whatever takes your fancy!!) calms your heart rate down and thus your breathing can become more regulated. I also try to look at my situation through my dogs eyes: would she be stressed? Would she be this worked up? And the answer is almost always, no! She would be excited, with a wet nose and waggy tail and looking forward to meeting new people and encountering new situations.
3. Meditation: Meditation doesn’t have to mean kneeling and making weird humming noises, which I often always used to think it did!! I meditate a few times a week, or more if I know that there is stressful or perhaps anxiety-provoking situation coming up. There are lots of apps, online meditations or soothing music that provide a comforting background noise for you to go deeper into yourself, controlling your breathing and getting to a calmer space.
4. Rescue Remedy (Aspen): This natural herbal remedy is really helpful! I don’t know much of the science of it, and it may just work as a placebo for me, but 2-3 drops under my tongue when I have anxiety definitely calms me down! They make all sorts of different herbal mixes but this one is the best for me!
5. Relaxing night-time routine: If I know I face an anxious day, the night before is always a calm and collected, relaxing one. A hot bubble bath, face mask and book to begin my relaxation, followed by a meditation, followed by more reading in bed with a fruit tea. I know I shouldn’t because it is supposed to stimulate you, but I then put on a comedy film or a Disney classic and snuggle in for the night with the dog. I think doing any of that to settle yourself, calm your body and mind and ease tension is a great way to start the next day feeling fresh
6. Remind yourself of reality: This is only a new thing for me, which my therapist, who I have been seeing for a few months now, taught me to do when I am feeling anxious, scared or like I’m going to have a panic attack. The idea is that whatever is going on externally or internally you that is making you stressed, take a minute, breathe and ask yourself if in reality you are okay. Are you safe? Are you breathing? Are you alive? Will you be ok? Do thousands upon thousands of people do these things every day? Is your reality as bad as your anxiety? More often than not, you can rationalise the situation in your head, and then keep repeating in your head, “In reality, I am okay”.
7. Talk to someone: It’s always important to have someone that you can confide in to tell them that you are feeling nervous/anxious about a situation, or that you are anxious. My boyfriend is really calming and when I am anxious he knows when to step in and talk to me, and when to leave me be. I think it is important to have somebody that doesn’t have an over-anxious mind that can help you rationalise a situation, as a negative mindset cannot always be turned around that easily!!
8. Recognise and praise yourself: I have a positivity jar that I write little notes in most days about something that I have achieved, something I did that was fun, or behaviours I am learning to change that I have put into practice. This really helps me to see my progression. For example, today I had my first day of work experience in a Veterinary Practice. For me, and for anyone, this foreign environment that is highly professional and in which I have no expertise and very little knowledge, is and was a very daunting prospect. However, this morning I did not feel anxious, managed to have an absolutely fantastic day and even managed to eat some lunch! That might not sound like a massive thing to many people but to me, eating lunch in a strange environment is a massive fear!! So that has gone in my positivity jar today. I am conscious to praise myself, recognise new behaviours, and stop for a minute and feel how good it feels! At the end of the year I am going to stick all of my positive notes from my jar into a scrap book, and then I can look back on all I have achieved in the year, and how much I have grown. It is so important to be your own biggest praiser, and recognise that every step, no matter how small, is a step in the right direction.
9. Counselling: Talking about my anxiety makes it seem much smaller, saying it out loud makes it seem sillier, and challenging it makes it a smaller obstacle. Counselling/therapy or whatever you want to call it has given me the tools with which to write this post, the ideas and the ability to discover what works for me as an individual, as we are all different. But talking to someone lessens the load, and makes it easier to see clearer how to make the symptoms of anxiety and panic become less and less, or at least more manageable.
10. Self-help books: I would definitely recommend self-help books. Little confidence booster books can be brought from Amazon for as little as 1p! “How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie is a good one, which helps to give you strategies with which to cope with anxiety, for example living in the now. The idea is that if you live in the present moment, instead of recalling past events or thinking about what might happen in the future, then you can’t be worried, because all you are thinking about is this present moment! It definitely takes some practice but it does work!
That is a few ways to calm anxiety that work for me, and TOUCH WOOD, I haven’t had a panic attack for…gosh I can’t even remember how long! And that is good going.
An important thing to remember about anxiety and fear is that almost 100% of the time, whatever you were worrying, stressing, or making yourself ill about never come to fruition, and you almost always enjoy situations that you were anxious about!!
I would love to hear about your coping strategies for anxiety, panic attacks and worry!