Anxiety is an emotion which has evolved to help make us think twice before taking risks – in other words, it is essential for survival. However, if feelings of anxiety persist over a period of time they can be a real problem.
For example, the stress hormone cortisol which accompanies anxiety can trigger physical illnesses. Also, if anxiety gets out of control it can give rise to, and take the form of a various anxiety disorders.
Post-traumatic stress responses are fueled by anxiety, and include intrusive thoughts and memories of stressful events, flashbacks and nightmares, angry outbursts, and being hypervigilant and constantly on the look-out for causes of fear and worry. Obsessive compulsive disorders and phobias are also forms of anxiety disorder.
What these anxiety disorders have in common is that they are all attempts to predict how we will meet emotional needs in the future, which include needs to feel safe and secure; to feel a sense of control over our lives; and to ensure that we don’t lose important relationships. Anxiety disorders attempt to solve problems which might prevent us from meeting these needs, by maintaining a state of readiness to respond – even if it doesn’t always feel that helpful and can make us miserable!
One reason anxiety can make us feel out of control is that it begins to arise before we are even aware of it. A part of our brain called the amygdala, located in the unconscious emotional brain, or limbic system is involved in risk assessing what our senses tell us about our surroundings – your amygdala is your own personal security officer.
Your security officer is essential for survival and if it spots a potential danger can send us into fight-or-flight – a state which drives us to run or jump out of the way, or lash out to defend ourselves. The security officer risk assesses danger by matching what our senses tell us to previous experiences. However, it only looks for partial matches before reacting and cannot see the bigger picture which rational thinking allows us to examine. In other words, if a red motorcycle of a particular make and model was present when you were involved in a road accident, and somebody suggests you get on a stationary motorcycle which is similar, the security officer may decide that it’s a close enough match, and fire off anxiety to try and keep you safe.
And this is how panic attacks are triggered. A panic attack is characterised by a shortness of breath and/or choking sensations; an irregular heart beat; sweating, shaking or trembling; chest pains; and feeling sick.
Panic attacks occur in response to a perceived threat, whether real or not, and often the sufferer can be unaware of the cause. To protect us from the perceived threat, the body reacts by releasing adrenaline and speeding up our breathing. In particular, the out breath gets much quicker, because the body wants to get to the next intake of oxygen in order to pump blood, and therefore energy to our major muscle groups – so we can run away from the threat!
So what can we do about this? Well one clue is in the pattern of breathing. By reversing the pattern of our breathing we can change the way that we feel – instead of shortening our out breath we make it longer.
The technique for doing this is sometimes called 7/11 breathing, and this is how you do it:
1. Start by placing your hands on your stomach and breathe in filling your stomach up with air and hold it (many of us tend to shallow breathe most of the time).
2. Then breathe out more slowly than when you were breathing in. It is the out-breath which stimulates the relaxation response.
3. Repeat this process, counting to 7 in your mind when breathing in, and to 11 when breathing out. The number doesn’t really matter so long as the out-breath is longer than the in-breath.
As well as practising 7/11 breathing, the skilled use of guided imagery and visualisation techniques, together with the support of a counsellor or psychotherapist, can help to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety disorders.
Contact Suffolk Mind to find out more 0300 111 6000 or visit suffolkmind.org.uk