Mindfulness Therapy for Anxiety
Feeling anxious sometimes, it is an inevitable part of being a human in a complicated 21st century world, where the demands made on us are usually much bigger than our capacity to deliver.
Quick links to:
What can trigger Anxiety?
The triggers for anxiety are numerous and vary from individual to individual, depending on what they perceive to be dangerous, frightening or threatening, to their life, health, wellbeing or sense of safety and belonging.
What you think is normal someone else could be anxious about … and vice versa
For example you may have experienced situations which, in your view, were completely benign such as a work Christmas party, where you haven’t given it a thought in the run up to it, and your colleague has been petrified for months, looking for an excuse out.
However, in another situation the converse might be true – for example your partner loves adventurous holidays with no plan, which for you causes dread, panic, cold sweats – before, during and even after the event.
Awareness of how individual the sense of anxiety may be is very important in order to avoid unhelpful interventions like: “don’t be silly, you can’t be scared of THAT”, as well as self-judgement: “how can I be so hopeless and be worried about something that others can’t wait to do!”
Anxiety is part of Fight and flight response
In its origin ‘Fight or Flight’ is a response designed to alert us to danger and has a life preserving function. It is a very powerful and immediate response by the brain to the signal of danger from sensors, by firing up the reactions that heighten our survival chances:
- Faster heartbeat causing increased supply of blood to muscles (run!!!!)
- Dilated pupils – tunnel vision (no time for subtleties)
- Sweating to cool the body
and blocking those that are not necessary
- Appetite (resulting in not feeling hungry, feeling nauseous)
- Need for sleep (resulting in alertness, sleeplessness)
- Ability to see many sides of the problem (not being able to take in a ‘reasonable argument’)
So is Anxiety a negative emotion?
In the situation of real danger this system of reactions is extremely effective – the best proof is -we are still here, dinosaurs and dodo’s are not.
A healthy ‘Fight/Flight’ response has an ending
For example after a near-miss car accident we shake a bit getting rid of any excess adrenaline. It is over.
Anxiety is a response to perceived danger that is not clearly identified or even doesn’t exist – and therefore the situation can’t have a resolution. We can’t shake it off.
For example anxiety of ‘not being good enough’ is very broad and can be triggered by a whole range of situations from which there is no escape, so the ‘Fight and Flight’ response keeps being activated but instead of it bringing a feeling of safety and relief, it makes the feeling more intense and overpowering.
What is important to acknowledge is that some anxiety is good to have and is functional, enabling us to get to work on time, meet demands, cross busy streets and remain aware of our surroundings. However, when we lose the ability to turn it off, and feel like our life is run by it, anxiety it becomes a problem.
What are the forms of Anxiety?
When anxiety builds up, it causes the ‘Fight or Flight’ response dial to overreact, overheat and only go from zero to Max, or stay on the Max all the time leaving you in the state of constant alertness and feeling that something is just about to go wrong. If this is the case you may be developing an anxiety disorder which might be further defined as a general, social or behavioural anxiety disorder.
An anxiety disorder is usually diagnosed when a person cannot manage to function adequately in their daily life due to the frequency and severity of the symptoms of anxiety.
General anxiety disorder
In this scenario anxiety is expressed as ‘worry’ – a mental assessment of a perceived danger/problem and inability to find a life-saving solution.
In fact 2 out of every 5 people report that they worry at least once every day. However, for some people their worry, feelings of anxiety and tension persists to the point that they significantly interfere with their daily life. If this sounds like you, then you may find the information here helpful in understanding what generalised anxiety is and its relevance to you
What are the key symptoms for General Anxiety Disorders?
Generalised anxiety involves:
- Anxiety or worry about several things, and has occurred for at least the past 6-months.
- Worry that is experienced as excessive and uncontrollable, is present most days, and interferes with the ability to focus on tasks.
At least 3 of the following symptoms also need to be present for the past 6-months or longer:
- Feeling restless, keyed up, on edge & unable to relax.
- Physical tension.
- Sleep disturbance. Having trouble falling asleep, maintaining sleep, or experiencing unsettled sleep.
- Problems concentrating and focusing on a task.
- Feeling irritable.
- Feeling tired or exhausted easily.
Humans are designed to be social and interact with each other, alongside food and sex, this is one of the sources of high release of dopamine in the brain (chemical of happiness and hope).
Despite such benefit we may sometimes feel unsure, anxious or apprehensive about meeting people. Some of us seem to be more comfortable than others in bigger gatherings, others prefer close intimate in-depth conversations with a chosen few. Such differences are natural and most of us will vary in our needs for social interaction. However, if the anxiety of interacting with people interferes with your daily routines and stops you from meeting your needs for work, joy, love – you may be suffering from social anxiety disorder.
Anxiety, Panic attack, Panic disorder
Panic attack is the feeling of anxiety taken to absolute maximum. We said already that anxiety is a feeling of looming danger when there isn’t one. Panic attack is having an experience of an extreme life threatening situation and having all the body responses necessary to run from a hungry bear – only that NOTHING is happening in the outside world. It is only the internal voice screaming
“You should be very scared now, because this is the situation that may cause death !!!!”
It may be the thought of failing the exam, or that the tube may stop and the air will run out, or the memory of extreme danger brought back to you by smell, light or a person.
The reaction that follows can be so intense that you may feel that you are about to faint or even die. This is highly unlikely because the physiological system producing a panic attack is the opposite of the one that produces fainting.
If a panic attack happens in a public place in addition to fear of death comes fear of embarrassment and vulnerability. If this experience is left to develop on its own it may lead to a panic disorder – feeling fear and panic of another panic attack.
Other anxiety based disorders
Persistent fear of having another attack or worries about the consequences of the attack may lead to people change their behaviour to try to prevent panic attacks. Some people are affected so much that they try to avoid any place where it might be difficult to get help or to escape from. When this avoidance is severe it is called Agoraphobia
OCD Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
Whilst agoraphobia is about anxiety causing avoidance of places, OCD is about the need to actively do certain things in faith that otherwise something terrible may happen to you or to people you love. This fear feels absolutely real and the idea of not conforming and risking their lives is absolutely out of question. Even if the price is to lose your job, friends, freedom.
How Mindfulness therapy for Anxiety helps replace the feelings of dread and worry with calm an equanimity
Anxiety and Panic have trained your brain to be constantly vigilant and scan for danger and believe that otherwise something terrible will happen. In addition your Obsessive Disorder might have convinced you that there is a whole set of things that you actively need to do, otherwise you will be responsible for that disaster. It is a horrible feeling to live with, causing additional fear and worry.
The first principle of Mindfulness is –
You don’t have to believe everything you think – or even feel!
All those sensations are productions of the part of your brain, a Disaster Department.
In therapy we will practice the ability to detach from that part and examine reality. We will develop the ability to see the feeling of anxiety as something that you experience, not as something that you are. We will retrain the brain to understand that the feeling of anxiety can be produced exclusively by your mind as an emotional habit not as a real response to external danger.
Mindfulness techniques for managing anxiety
Reversing the loop from ‘Fight or Flight’ to ‘Rest and Digest’
One of the ways of managing anxiety is learning to reverse the ‘Fight or Flight’ response.
In a situation of danger the brain stimulates the body to action. Breathing gets faster, heart beats stronger. People suffering from anxiety disorder often adopt this state as a ‘baseline’ not even being aware that, their ‘Fight or Flight’ response doesn’t switch off.
In order to change the pattern, we need to reverse the information loop. One of the ways of doing this is to consciously slow down the breathing and heart rate, and in this waywe send a message to the brain’s ‘Disaster Department’ (limbic brain responsible for survival)to say that “the danger is over”.
Once the body and brain have come closer to the ‘Rest and Digest’ mode the reflective and contemplative part of the brain is activated (Common Sense Department J or “frontal cortex responsible for logical thinking and reasoning ). This part of the brain is necessary to re-examine the danger and to develop new ways of coping with the situation. It gets switched off when Fight or Flight is in action. That’s why we can’t learn or reason when we are scared, anxious or panicking.
Here is an exercise that will help you to use your breath to reduce your feeling of anxiety
- Set the timer for 1 minute
- Count your breath for 1 minute (in-out breath cycle counts as one) – write down the score
- Set the timer for 1 minute again
- This time consciously slow your breathing a bit
(don’t stop breathing completely you competitive ones out there! If it was around 25, go down to around 20; 20 – 15 ; 12 – 8 etc.)
- Observe sensation in the body.
It can be practiced anywhere, anytime and is a good start to learning about how the reverse loop and teaching your body to affect the Disaster Department part of your brain.
Therapy for anxiety is about understanding your responses and learning to react differently. Learning how to distract or put to sleep your Meerkat, whilst training your mind to have varied ways of interacting with the world, alternative to the lens of fear or danger.
Take the first step and contact Anna to discuss Mindfulness Therapy for Anxiety
Here are some articles and resources that might help you understand your anxiety
The Evening Standard recently wrote this article on ‘How to cope with everyday anxiety’
The Australian Organisation The Centre for Clinical Interventions, have produced this useful guide to explaining what is anxiety
They have also developed this guide to What is Social Anxiety
And also this leaflet to explain What is Panic
The NHS has also written a useful self help guide to coping with panic attacks