I remember the moment when I first experienced debilitating anxiety.
On an early, dark fall morning, the sky heavy with grey clouds, I was racing down the Sea to Sky highway toward the hustle of the city with all the other commuter traffic.
I had stopped at my usual coffee shop along the way and was mildly disappointed that the new girl working there had burnt my coffee. This was redeemed by the fact that the apple cinnamon muffin was still warm out of the oven and oh, so tasty.
A podcast I wasn’t really listening to droned on in the background while I mindlessly inhaled the sweet treat, leaving a few wayward crumbs in my lap.
There was nothing particularly different about that morning, but I dreaded every moment that took me closer to the fast pace and noise of city life. I felt a jittery tension building inside me.
It was the first time I had a panic attack.
My heart was pounding against the cage of my chest, and I was desperately gasping for breath. The hands I saw gripping the wheel were mine, and yet, they felt like they must belong to someone else.
With my peripheral vision tunnelling to black, I was terrified I was going to run myself or some unlucky commuter off this winding mountain highway. Rocky cliffs dropped to the water below, and there was nowhere to pull over.
There’s nothing quite so debilitating as the anxious fear that leaves us feeling like we have no control over our safety, our happiness, and our future.
Anxiety starts as worrying thoughts, but is felt as panic deep in the physiology of our body. There’s no reasoning with it, so what can we do instead?
Even when we know better, the instinct is to try to figure out ways to rationalize and control factors outside our control. And this is the problem. The rational mind does not speak the language of the survival brain.
Whatever our primitive brain decides is best for survival, that’s what happens, even if our rational mind knows this isn’t what we need. We need to listen when we’re getting these messages, and this means paying attention to the physical sensations of our emotions.
Every single emotion—whether we notice it or not—has a physical expression to it. When we feel a deep connection with another being, we move closer, and hormones that inspire attachment are released because social connection is good for our survival.
When we feel threatened, even if the threat is hypothetical and not actually happening, we get ready to react with the protective mechanisms of fight, flight, or freeze.
Signs of that protective mode can look like:
>> heart rate changes
>> sweating without exertion
>> stomach or throat tightening
>> feeling a rush of unexplained heat or redness in your body
>> feeling the need to yawn or having difficulty getting a breath
>> headaches or chronic pain, restlessness or other uncomfortable sensations
These signs can feel scary, but they’re only meant to alert us to the possibility of threat so we can pay attention and respond accordingly.
We can bypass panic by speaking the language of our survival brain through stimulating the parasympathetic branch of our nervous system:
1. Breathe with an exhale longer than the inhale. The classic breath here is a four–seven–eight breath. Inhale for four counts, pause the breath for seven counts, and exhale for eight counts. Some find pausing the breath uncomfortable, and if this is true for you, then just focus on counting a longer exhale than your inhale.
2. Stimulate the vagus nerve. Interlace your fingers and place your hands behind your head. Lean back if seated, or lie down with your head in your hands. Keeping your head still, look with your eyes to the far right. Keep your gaze there until you feel the urge to yawn or sigh. Then repeat to the left.
3. Give your vagus nerve a gentle stretch. Place the pads of your fingertips on your forehead and gently drag outward from midline to your temples, then place your fingertips on your cheekbones and drag outward to your ears. Next, place your fingertips behind your ears and drag down the sides of your neck. Repeat a few times.
4. Bring tactile awareness to your limbs. Gently stroke downward along each of your arms and legs as far as you can comfortably reach. Repeat for about five strokes on each limb.
5. Practice mindful awareness of the sensations in your body and watch them with curious indifference. Now that you’ve communicated safety with the survival brain, you can let your rational mind come into the conversation. Let yourself feel whatever sensations are there and reassure yourself that you are safe, even if there is still some unpleasant sensation present.
Anyone who’s ever felt a panic attack, or another expression of anxiety, will know how difficult it can be to regain that sense of control and trust in your body.
These five techniques can be used in the moment of panic for a quick way to calm the protective nervous system, but they are best used as a consistent lifestyle practice.
The more we speak to our survival brain in its own language, the safer we can feel in our body. Even during stress. Using these techniques every day, even when we’re not feeling anxious or worried, improves our communication and relationship with our primitive brain.
If you have the chance to try communicating this way with your survival brain, please let me know how it goes for you!