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  • Writer's pictureHilary McMeeking

What to do when your anxiety takes over...

Are you feeling more anxious than usual or having bouts of panic? I know I'm really feeling it at the moment, it comes in waves and is definitely related to what I read or watch on TV. As Coronavirus takes hold, life moves on at an unexpected pace in a direction we could never have dreamed of. We are going through huge and rapid change as each day brings different challenges:

  • health

  • loved ones

  • death

  • food

  • loo roll

  • work

  • no work/loss of income

  • children at home... and can I really live in the same house with these people for weeks on end?

Living in a situation where we are facing something we haven’t faced before and are worried about illness makes us to want to flee the situation; this is a natural animal instinct. However it is not possible to flee as the virus is global. No wonder we are feeling panicky! We cannot flee, therefore we are having to sit with these uncomfortable feelings and are not able to discharge them or do anything about it. The more news we watch the more our body responds to try and make us take action against the threat, it doesn’t understand that we can’t get away; we are stuck in 'fight or flight' mode.

Our sympathetic nervous system takes over when we are in fight or flight mode. It is useful if we are being attacked and we need to fight or flee but not useful in this current situation. Our brain doesn't know all the facts, it just knows something needs to happen to find safety but in this current situation there is nothing to fight and we cannot flee.

You can help to turn those feelings back down by doing things that induce the parasympathetic nervous system to kick back in.

In ‘normal’ life, one in which we are not feeling threatened, both systems work together in a regulated way that feels right. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for ‘rest and digest’, the opposite of the 'fight or flight' which the sympathetic nervous system controls. One solution to feeling less anxious, is to try to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to bring us back out of 'fight or flight'. Luckily we are able to do that with a simple breathing exercise.

So, if you are feeling very anxious here is something you may like to try to help bring the ‘rest and digest’ system back. If your anxiety comes in waves try a time when it is not at full tilt and you may be able to keep that 'full on' feeling at bay:

Breath focus

We can activate our parasympathetic system using the breath; when deep breathing is focused and slow it helps bring the parasympathetic nervous system back on line and reduces the ‘fight or flight' anxiety symptoms. Meditation and yoga can also help in the same way.

Try this breathing technique sitting or lying down in a quiet location. Make sure you are warm and completely comfortable, if necessary use a blanket around you to help you feel warm and safe. Then:

  • Firstly, notice how it feels when you inhale and exhale normally.

  • Now take a slow, deep breath through your nose and hold for a few seconds.

  • Notice your belly and upper body expanding while you do this.

  • Exhale through your mouth, sighing if you wish. Make sure to exhale all of the breath out.

  • Begin to focus on your breath. Breath in and out slowly like this for several minutes, paying attention to nothing but the rise and fall of your belly and the air coming in and out of your body. Remember to keep it slow or try to slow it down.

  • Choose a word to focus on during your exhale. Words like “safe” and “calm” can be effective. Say or think them being said very slowly.

  • Imagine your inhale washing over you like a gentle wave.

  • Imagine your exhale carrying negative and upsetting thoughts and energy away from you.

  • Scan your body if you feel like doing so. You might feel tension in part of your body that you have never noticed, if you do, try to relax that part as you breath out each time, when you breath out there is a feeling of ‘letting go’, relax with that.

  • When you get distracted, gently bring your attention back to your breath and your words. Try to focus on the feeling of your breath coming in and out of your body; the air, for instance, feels cold at the tip of your nose when you breath in and warmer when you breath out.

Try this exercise for a few minutes as many times a day as you feel is useful. If you find it difficult to do the visualisation (7-8) that’s ok, just concentrate on slowing your breath, relaxing areas of your body where you can feel tension and think of your chosen word.

It’s common to lose concentration often - every few seconds in fact- and if this happens try not to beat yourself up about it, it’s just normal! Practice helps, as does saying the word out loud or even count to ten whilst breathing, so your thoughts don’t invade.

Keep safe everyone.

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