By Brian Robinson.
We now know that reactions can be important when suffering from a variety of anxiety disorders. In many instances, how we react can often reinforce the idea that we are in danger. Our reactions may work to maintain the anxious condition, and that is clearly something worth looking at.
The whole idea behind anxiety and panic is to encourage us to react; to panic, or run from the perceived danger. That’s why these systems exist. Anxiety at its root is a safety mechanism. It is a spur to action. However, we don’t have to run; we don’t have to panic, even though the urge to do so may be powerful. Moderating our reaction to anxiety can have a real and positive effect. We may not be able to directly control the anxiety: but we are able to control how we react, at least to some degree.
What do we mean when we talk about how we react to anxiety? No one wants to be anxious so we react against it. Isn’t it as simple as that? No, I’m afraid it’s not. But to help break it down, we can place reaction under three broad headings: physical; emotional; and psychological.
To resist anxiety physically is a perfectly natural response. I have already written about this separately so I won’t elaborate too much here. However, when we resist anxiety physically we build up inner tension. We do this to try and stop the panic in its tracks. But and as we know, high tension levels are what triggers anxiety so this clearly is not a good strategy. And besides, physical resistance simply does not work. A panic attack will inevitable run its course.
We also react physically in how we behave. Indeed, our behavioural reaction is a whole field on its own so we will limit things here to a few examples. Generally speaking, it is best to try and keep to your normal behaviours. Try to keep working. Follow usual hobbies and pursuits. Try and have a day with some solid structure.
When having a panic attack, many people end up at accident and emergency because they believe something radical has gone wrong. That’s understandable for the first incidence of panic, or perhaps the second attack. But what about the fifth panic or the fiftieth panic? When we display panic behaviour we send a ‘danger present’ signal to the brain. But if we just sit quiet and see it through, we are more likely to relax muscular tension and reassure our anxious mind.
What about those who pace endlessly around the house when having a panic attack? They do this because they get some comfort from this sort of behaviour. The anxious mind relaxes a bit when it thinks you are putting some distance between yourself and the danger. However, the pacing also reinforces the idea that danger exists. It is far better, to say get up and make a drink then settle back down as if you are not in any danger. This sort of reaction will appease your anxiety a little, as well as sending the right message when you sit down again.
Emotional reaction is more difficult to recognise and define. This is so because emotions and thoughts are linked in such a way that it difficult to separate them. When we experience an intense emotion, this will automatically trigger a flow of thoughts. And likewise, when we experience a troublesome thought, this will inevitably give rise to troublesome emotions.
One way to try and separate the two is to see if you can describe what you are feeling in a single word. If you can, it is more likely to be an emotion. If it takes a lot of dialogue to describe how you feel, it is more likely to be a mixture of emotions and thoughts.
Impatience is a good example of a negative reaction. We want the anxiety to go away, and we fail to accept that there is no immediate cure. We have to remember though, that this emotion is understandable and we shouldn’t deny it or try to pretend it doesn’t exist. But we can try to see the emotion for what it is, and this will help us become more accepting of the anxiety.
Frustration and agitation are other negative reactions and they exist for much the same reasons as impatience. We become frustrated because anxiety is a complex emotion that cannot be dealt with in the same way as a simple emotion like anger can. When we become angry we can walk around the block or count to ten. That doesn’t work with anxiety.
Psychological reaction can take a number of different forms. If we don’t understand something that is unpleasant we try and run away from it; pretend it’s not happening; deny its existence. Understanding anxiety for what it is, in other words, something that has misunderstood the presence of danger, is a good way to decrease psychological resistance.
Many people view anxiety as a form of attack. They see it in the same way as when we have caught a virus or some bacterial infection. This view of anxiety encourages us to see anxiety as a bully and want to fight back. Unfortunately, a fight mode inevitably increases tension levels and is counterproductive. It can even make matters worse. Anxiety is not an illness and therefore should not be treated as such.
Some people see anxiety as a hopeless condition, they feel they have been genetically determined to be anxious and there is little or nothing they can do to change that. This type of reaction is resistant to the idea of recovery. Anxiety is a treatable condition and we now have the knowledge to pursue an anxiety free outcome.