By Brian Robinson.
The first thing to say is that we have to be careful not to confuse coping with recovering. While there is often an overlap between the two, they can in fact be quite different things. For example, people often create a limited world in which they are able to survive and keep anxiety and panic at bay to some extent. They may only drive certain distances; only work in certain places; avoid certain situations and so on. While these people may be admired for their efforts to live with their condition, their behaviours may in reality be maintaining their disorder.
It is also worth mentioning, that while it is entirely understandable why people may be desperate to find ways to cope, coping strategies and techniques have limited ability. For example, a panic attack will run its course regardless of what we do. We may be able to lessen the intensity or clip a minute or two off the attack. But if we believe we can stop or control a panic attack, then it is probably not a panic attack we are experiencing.
So, what can we do? Well, there is good news there. If we adopt the right relationship with our anxiety, and if we approach our panic in the right way, then we will begin to create a powerful influence over it. So, here we will not ignore coping techniques, but we will begin by exploring potential relaxing approaches to anxiety and panic.
Have a good recovery plan: When it comes to a general approach to coping with anxiety having a recovery plan comes top of the list. Set out your recovery plan; write it down; carry it with you. You should also have sub-plans for dealing with things like panic attacks; trigger situations; sleeplessness etc. Plans are psychologically, emotionally, and physically relaxing things.
Have a recovery routine: Next on the list comes routine. Having a recovery routine means your recovery day is structured. You should be avoiding the things that stress you and embracing the thing that help you relax. Use your five senses as filters and feeders. Listen to relaxing music: avoid high drama on TV. Routines are really safe things and are meat and drink for the anxious mind.
Trust: It can be difficult for anxiety sufferers to believe they can ever recover. Anxiety and panic have the power to distort reality and jaundice our beliefs. But we are still able to trust. Trust doesn’t have to have a foundation in truth: it is a gift we can give to ourselves. So, trust in your recovery plan; trust in the process; and trust in yourself that you will be able to do this.
Acceptance: accept everything in your life, your anxiety, and everything else you may see as problematic. Acceptance doesn’t mean we’re not going to do something about these things. It means we are not getting more and more stressed about the things we cannot immediately fix.
Calm: Anxiety is a system that has an agenda and the means to pursue that agenda. It wants us to be overcome by our fear and then turn and run. We do the opposite. We allow the anxiety in; we see it for what it is; and we remain calm. Our panic attacks want us to cry for help, run for the lifeboats. A panic attack is a more dramatic and intense spur to action than general anxiety. But the ship isn’t sinking; our emotions may be at sea; but our feet are firmly on the ground.
Control: don’t try and control anxiety or panic. Our nervous system will more or less have its own way regardless. But we can apply control. We do this slowly and progressively via relaxation and thought management. Our aim is to create a relaxed inner environment in which anxiety and panic cannot exist. We don’t actually fix anything: our nervous system fixes itself.
Escalation: anxiety wants us to escalate and react to the perceived danger. The first sign of this is the “Oh my God” reaction. Then we go on a hike: the pilot looks really young; has he been drinking last night; oh my God, the plane is going to crash. Panic attacks are not life-threatening. You do not have to call an ambulance or present at Accident & Emergency. See panic attacks for what they are.
Resistance: the normal reaction to anxiety and panic is to resist. We do this physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Unfortunately, this only makes matters worse. When we resist, we tense to try and prevent the onset of the anxiety or panic. But the truth is that anxiety thrives on tension: it feeds on stress.
Open mind: when bad things happen it is natural to predict they will happen again. If we have a panic attack in a supermarket, it is natural to want to avoid supermarkets. This is how we are wired as human beings. Predicting what will happen can often change our behaviours and this, in turn, can maintain our anxiety.
Relationship: Unsurprisingly, many of us develop a hateful relationship with our anxiety. We see it as the enemy, as a bully that has waded into our lives and straddled our quality our life. However, anxiety is a system that is part of who we are. It is a system that is designed to keep us safe. It does not want to harm or hurt us. It is better to try and see it as a misguided friend. Our job is to enlighten our panic; to calm our anxiety; and to encourage this system to become dormant. Fight or flight should only become aroused when we are in real danger. Now to the coping.
Breathing: Whenever you have a panic attack or are feeling really anxious you would first of all drop into a breathing exercise. This is basically slow breathing with the mouth closed. Ideally, you should be using your diaphragm. This will build up carbon dioxide in your system and help to calm you physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Arresting tactics or thought-stopping: when your thinking drifts towards ‘what if’s’ or ‘catastrophising’ it’s a good idea to have some arresting tactics. This could be an image of a policeman with his hand held up telling you to stop. Or a crossing control lady with her familiar stop sign.
Another effective tactic is to have an elastic band on your wrist which you flick to remind you that your thoughts are entering negative territory.
Grounding: grounding is a technique designed to shift our focus from the internal to the external world. There are lots of different exercises widely available on the internet or via apps on your phone. The most popular is the five, four, three, two, one exercise. Look at one thing in the room: touch two things: think of three distinct smells: what are your four favourite tastes: what are your five most loved pieces of music? This helps switch your focus.
There is scope to develop this much further and this involves getting into the detail, for example, who wrote the piece of music you are thinking about or listening to; what are the lyrics trying to tell us? When looking at someone ask what they do for a living; why are they here; how are they dressed?
There is also such a thing as emotional or psychological grounding. This centers on looking for the true thought or true emotion. For example, I may be thinking I am going mad, but anxiety is not something that leads to madness or mental illness.
I may be feeling terrified, but the truth is I am safe at home. Try bringing the psychological and emotional truths to the forefront of your thinking and chose which one to focus on.
Distraction: distraction is a great way to help deal with overwhelming thoughts or emotions. We should have physical distractions to hand when needed e.g. a game on your phone; a crossword puzzle; a jigsaw, etc. We drop onto these when our thoughts are difficult to escape.
We should have mental distractions available too. The most obvious one would be visualisation. For example, if we are in bed and stressing about something we can take ourselves off to a safe place, a desert island or a walk through a green and interesting valley. Make sure you take your emotions and your five senses with you. This will make it all the more powerful.
You could begin to write a story in your head; decide on a plot; invent your characters; breathe life into them.
Positive triggers: can be used to counteract negative triggers or hotspots. We think of a nice relaxing image; we repeat a word in our head like ‘relax’; and we touch our thumb and little finger together. This is something that has to be practiced repeatedly in advance of any negative triggers.
Personification: Many people find it useful to regard their anxiety as a person. This allows us to set up a dialogue with our fears. You could see your anxiety as your fearful inner child thus allowing you to comfort and reassure him/her.
Animation: Some people find it useful to see their anxiety as a parrot or a cartoon character sitting on their shoulder. You could give it a squeaky comical voice which can reinforce the idea that your anxiety is quite out-of-step with the reality of your situation.
Time: All catastrophising and ‘what ifs’ sit in the future tense. But lives are immediate things that exist in the present. So, don’t ask what if I get this or that illness? Bring your question into the present tense and ask what can I do to give myself the best chance of maintaining good health?
Crying: crying may not seem like an obvious way to cope with anxiety. It can be seen as an admission of defeat, of giving up. However, it can also be an important way of releasing tension and can be a great comfort.
Tactile: Carrying something tactile can be a comfort for anxiety sufferers. It can help to ground us and re-connect with the external world. Ideally, the item should be small and be distinctive to the touch. A coin or medal, something smooth, something furry; something cold could all be good candidates for something tactile.
Relaxing statements: relaxing statements can be a good way of dealing with negative thoughts. For example, if we worry that we may never recover, we introduce the following statement: I know what anxiety is; I know what I have to do; therefore recovery is only a matter of time.
If you are facing an uncertain future and you fear things will turn out bad for you: say to yourself, whatever happens, I’ll do the right thing, I’ll do what’s right for me; and I’ll do what’s right for all the others concerned.
If things are taking a turn for the worse, remind yourself that we learn from bad things; we grow through experience.
It is also worth mentioning that negative statements can have the opposite effect. Don’t keep telling yourself this is all your fault. Nobody brings anxiety upon themselves. When you wake up feeling anxious, don’t blame yourself.
Open posturing: when people are anxious and during a panic attack they will often adopt a defensive posture. This could be sitting with your arms across your chest or abdomen. Or sometimes we sit hunched over. This is done unconsciously to protect our vital organs. Ideally, we should get up, loosen up, and then sit back down adopting an open posture with our hands by our side.
Others may get up and pace endlessly around the house. This is our way of telling our anxious mind that we are distancing ourselves from the danger. However, these types of behaviours have the effect of confirming that the danger actually exists and should be avoided. It would be good to get up and have a little walk around. This might go some way to appease our anxious mind, but the rule of thumb is to do the opposite of what our anxiety is suggesting.
Observer’s mode: stepping back from your anxiety and seeing yourself as an observer rather than a sufferer can take some heat out of the situation. Look for patterns and behavioural changes that may help you understand and deal with your condition better. For example, if you become anxious at certain times of the day or in certain situations, try mixing things up a bit. Try doing different things or being in different places at least some of the time. Do this to upset the patterns but be careful not to get into avoidance behaviour.
Journaling: Monitor key aspects of your condition and record the progress you have made. Often we make huge strides forward without giving ourselves the credit we deserve.