Anxiety symptoms can be very distressing and take on a life of their own. It looks like this:

We’re faced with a stressful situation or anything that our minds could interpret as a threat to ourselves. We begin to feel tension in our bodies that can present as tightness in the chest, difficulty breathing or swallowing, rapid heartbeat, sweating more than usual, clamminess, dizziness, nausea, tingling in the extremities. There are many other symptoms of anxiety that vary greatly, depending on the person. Some individuals get diarrhea or feel nauseous, or feel that they’ll pass out.

All of these symptoms are our body’s normal reaction to a perceived threat and in some situations is what help us to stay safe. It’s our body’s alarm system signaling that something is terribly wrong and we should either run or take action, the “fight or flight” response. Some would add “freeze” to the possible reactions.

The problem is that this “fight, flight or freeze” response can happen anytime, even when there is no real physical threat, sometimes out of the blue!
Once we’re aware of the physical symptoms of anxiety, we then become alarmed at the fact that we’re having the symptoms. This in turn fuels the anxiety more and more, and soon we’re in a vicious cycle of alarm and worsening anxiety symptoms.

There are several helpful techniques to alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. The one that is the simplest and very effective is the 4.7.8 breathing technique. It is important to learn to breathe through the diaphragm, in such a way that the stomach expands. Shallow breathing in the chest area is common during times of stress and anxiety but isn’t effective in providing our bodies with the oxygen it needs and in calming us down. Make sure you’re breathing through your diaphragm. It works like this: Inhale deeply on a count of 4, hold for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts. Do this for four breaths, and then later in the day for four more breaths.

Another technique that is helpful and helps to calm racing thoughts is to imagine a peaceful place as you systematically tense and then relax each large muscle group in the body. I like to imagine the beach, a hammock between two coconut trees, and I “hear” the waves, I “smell” the sea water, and “watch” the clouds float by in the sky.

Refocusing our thoughts is especially helpful when we feel anxiety. We will naturally want to focus on our anxious feelings, both emotional and our physical symptoms, but guess what? Focusing on our anxiety produces—you guessed it: more anxiety. When we become aware of our anxiety and physical symptoms, we can immediately focus our thoughts on something else, preferably something positive. Each time we focus on something positive instead of our anxious feelings, we are weakening the hold that anxiety has on us and we’re strengthening and creating new neural pathways.

There are many other techniques and treatments to deal with anxiety, and we’ll look at some of those in a future article. Give the above techniques a try, and give us your feedback and comments!

Deborah Pinkston, Ph.D.