What if you’re suddenly hit out of the blue with a bad bout of very severe anxiety, whether it’s a panic attack, a phobic reaction, or another type of anxiety problem—and what if it’s difficult or impossible for you to leave or to get any help? For example, if you’re kayaking on your canoe down the rapids, and feeling very anxious, you may feel like jumping in the river to get out of there, but you know that you really shouldn’t. For one thing, you might get sucked under the river and drown or you could hit your head on some rocks. Or both things could happen.
An anxious person can think of many other terrible scenarios that could ensue while they are kayaking down the rapids of a river. (And don’t ask why on earth a very anxious person is kayaking in the first place! Maybe it was a bet that you lost.)
This chapter offers some simple strategies to help you get through some tough spots and deal with your anxiety, including such techniques as deep breathing, thought blocking, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization. Practice these strategies ahead of time so you can easily draw upon them when you find yourself in a serious state of anxiety, and you want to recover fast, or at least decrease your level of anxiety to a more tolerable state.
Because anxiety that is caused by any anxiety disorder nearly always causes you to breathe more rapidly, one way to calm yourself down is to change your breathing pattern. When you breathe more slowly and deeply, your body will respond by slowing down. So what you need to do is to breathe in through your nose and breathe out through your mouth, taking deep breaths each time. Concentrate only on your breathing and not on whatever is upsetting you. There is only you and breathing.
Eventually, your breathing rate will calm and you will feel better.
Another way to decrease your overall level of anxiety is to stop your unpleasant or distressing thoughts in a hurry through the use of a technique that is known as thought blocking. For example, let’s say that you have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and you start thinking to yourself in a catastrophic manner, “Oh no! If I fail this test, I’ll never graduate. Everything I worked for will be gone!”
In this case, directly after a catastrophic thought, say to yourself in your mind, a loud “STOP.” If you don’t like the word “stop,” then use “Halt!” or “No!” or another short and powerful word.
Every time the troublesome thought recurs—and it will recur—again say STOP in your mind. Eventually, your brain will listen and the bad thoughts will stop, at least for awhile. If they come back, use your thought blocking technique again. It can be very effective.
PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION
No matter what type of anxiety disorder you may have—if you’ve been diagnosed with any anxiety disorder—when you are in an anxious state, your muscles will tighten up in an automatic reaction to a real or perceived threat. This is the “fight or flight” response, and it’s a very natural one. Learn this technique when you are not feeling stressed out, so you can use it when you are very anxious.
Once you have mastered progressive muscle relaxation (and it is not hard to learn), you can use progressive muscle relaxation when you actually are suffering from major anxiety.
To start with, lie down. You may start with your feet, thinking about them and then making the muscles in your feet very tight for a few seconds, then relaxing these muscles as much as you possibly can. Then with your mind, move into the ankles, and the lower leg muscles, tightening them so that they are tense for a few seconds, and then releasing all the tension out. Let it all go.
Move through your upper legs and to your abdominal area, and then into your shoulders and neck, arms, and hands and fingers. You will find that it is usually very hard to stay extremely anxious after you’ve completed a progressive muscle relaxation series. That’s a good thing.
When you find yourself in a very anxious state, you can use progressive muscle relaxation. You don’t have to lie down. You could be sitting in the doctor’s waiting room and do these exercises. Just go through the body parts in your mind, first tensing them, and then relaxing them.
Another good way to calm yourself in the midst of severe anxiety is to think of a very serene scene that you have previously imagined in a non-anxious state. It could be somewhere you have actually traveled or it could be an imaginary place. Fill it with unicorns and mythical creatures, if that makes you feel happy. It may also help to imagine water, such as a brook streaming over rocks or a beautiful waterfall.
When you visualize this scene, close your eyes so that you can “see” it in your mind. Notice details, such as what trees are present (if any), what the sky looks like, and create as many details as possible so that later you can draw upon this image when you are in an anxious state. Take a mental snapshot of your safe place and store it in your mind for future use.
Let’s say that you need help right now, because you are starting to panic about your bills that were due last week, some really bad weather that’s coming in (Oh no! A blizzard!), or something else. In many cases, at least several problems are really stressing you out.
Sit down, close your eyes, if possible, and recall your beautiful and safe place that you created in your mind. Let yourself feel its calming influence and tell yourself in your mind how pleasant and nice it feels. Don’t let invasive and negative thoughts intrude because they are not allowed in your safe place.
If you’re out in public and can’t close your eyes, recall your serene vision inside your mind’s eye. Think about the different aspects of the scene and admire them. It’s hard to be anxious when you are enjoying true beauty—and what you visualize is beautiful.