Stop The Onset of An Anxiety Attack
Sometimes, out of the blue, my heart starts racing and my chest gets tight. I know it’s the onset of an anxiety attack, but there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it. I don’t want to give in to it – how do I make it stop?
Signed: Stop the Onset
Dear Stop the Onset,
It is always important that you listen to your body’s warning signals. If you feel the onset of an anxiety attack brewing, your brain is likely feeling unsafe or insecure (out of balance) about something, and it’s trying to get your attention so you can make things better. Your brain is not necessarily telling you NOT to do something – it’s just letting you know that there is a perceived problem. It needs you to notice that problem so you can make a conscious decision about whether or not it’s safe to proceed. Being safe doesn’t mean the anxious feeling goes away completely. It just means that you are acknowledging the feeling while you are also letting your brain know it’s okay to keep going, because you have the problem under control.
We need to work with our brain – with the feeling of anxiety – and not try to fight against it all the time. The more we fight it, the more our state of unease (and therefore the problem) grows. But the more we recognize the problem and assure our brain that we have it handled (with support from others or trust in ourselves), the more the feeling of anxiety can take a back seat, instead of trying to control the whole show.
The next time you are receiving messages from your body that something is scary or difficult to handle, take a moment to recognize what your brain is trying to tell you. Learn how to speak to yourself in a way that embraces the message your brain is sending, while also assuring yourself that you have the problem managed. We often get mad at ourselves when the anxiety starts to take over – berating ourself for overreacting; or telling ourselves to just suck it up. Or we start to feed the anxiety by telling ourselves that we really can’t/shouldn’t do it. Both approaches just make our brain feel even more insecure and unsafe. Instead, try talking to your anxiety like it’s your best friend. Thank it for trying to help you stay safe, and acknowledge that it is okay to be having the feeling. Gently reassure your brain of all the ways you will be addressing the problems it is seeing. Remind your brain of the ways you will be safe – and connect to your brain in a way that reminds it of the faith/confidence that you have in yourself for being able to manage whatever is about to happen.
Once you have done this, and if you feel the risk is appropriate (and you are not about to be hurt), then try these somatic therapy techniques to further calm the part of your brain that is sending up the red flag warning signals:
1) Suck on a hard candy or chew fresh gum – keep your saliva glands actively working on an ongoing basis. When our bodies experience “dry mouth”, the brain gets the message that something scary or dangerous is about to happen. If we can keep our mouths appropriately moist, our brains receive the signal that all is well.
2) Make a poop face (yep, you read that right LOL). Bear down like you were having your daily constitutional. This stimulates the vagus nerves (we have two – each running from your brainstem to your chest and abdomen) and sends the message to slow your heart rate which, in turn, calms your whole body.
3) Blow on your thumb – which also stimulates the vagus nerve. Put the tip of your thumb in your mouth and close your lips around it, forming a seal. Then blow out as hard as possible, through the blocked passageway, without breaking the seal (your cheeks will expand like a puffer fish). This also slows your heart rate and calms your body, sending the message to your brain that you are safe and secure.
4) If you are particularly agile, do a handstand. This too will stimulate your vagus nerve.
5) Fill a sink with cold/icy water, and submerge your face while holding your breath (or blow bubbles while your face is in the water). This “shock” technique forces your brain to logically evaluate what is happening. For safety/survival reasons, your brain must always jump to this analytical process, which can often hiccup you out of the emotional reaction that your brain has gotten stuck in with the anxiety.
Together, the combination of the tapes playing in your head and the body stimulation you are experiencing in the anxiety-producing moment will determine the degree to which you (or the anxiety) are feeling capable/safe and ready to carry on.
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