"Look at what you bring to the world, not what you lack." - Miranda Kate

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Breaking the cycle of Anxiety in your life

Rainbow through ice.

Do you suffer anxiety or panic attacks?

Does it feel like someone’s sitting on your chest? Do you struggle to breathe? Do you hyperventilate, even faint? Or do you shake and sweat?

Anxiety can take different forms, and it can be triggered by different things, some conscious, many unconscious. Thoughts and emotions about something in the present that is causing stress, or may be triggering something that happened in the past. It is very individual and can happen to anyone at any time.

I started to suffer anxiety attacks on a daily basis in my early 20s, and it went on for more than 6 months. They would always occur during the evening or late at night. I would shake violently - particularly my legs, and break out in a sweat.

Mine were centred around a fear of being sick - of physically throwing up. If I felt remotely full or bloated after eating, I would worry it would happen, and off the panic attack would go. 

I could be found walking round the streets and parks in my neighbourhood in the early hours of the morning trying to ‘walk it off', the only effective method I found at the time to break the cycle.

But I was not conscious of the underlying cause; I needed to dig it out, although I had a hunch. The timing was a tell-tale sign for me, as the correlation to the fear of being sick was reflective of my childhood.

I was a child of domestic violence. I witnessed my mother being beaten on a regular basis, usually at night, for several years from a very young age. As a child I would pace the floor when hearing the sound of it and panic, which usually resulted in me being sick.

The pattern showing up in my adult life was triggered by a bout of food poisoning, but it continued due to unresolved feelings resurfacing.

“A trigger is a connection between the conscious mind and a buried painful memory.”

Anxiety attacks make you feel powerless and out of control. You feel unable to stop them, or predict when they will happen. And you find yourself worrying more and more about them happening, compounding the feeling of anxiousness.

“Stress is directly related to how out of control we feel.”

The daily regularity of my attacks made me begin to wonder if this was how it was going to be for the rest of my life. Was this it? Was this going to be my day to day?

I knew I could not continue if they were. And so, for the first time in a serious and reasoned thought process, I considered taking my own life. I had contemplated it many times at different moments in my childhood, but I had always believed that things could - and would - get better. But with the anxiety attacks I could no longer be sure, especially if I couldn't get them to stop.

That was when I knew I had to seek help.

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

Besides help with resolving my childhood traumas, therapy enabled me to overcome my anxiety attacks, because it did one simple thing: explain what was actually going on in my mind and body to cause the physical reaction of an anxiety attack.
I discovered the catch 22 that fed the attacks: When I felt sick, my mind escalated panicked thoughts of throwing up. In response, my body tensed up, and would go into 'flight or fight' mode.
When we are in a state of fear, our body dumps a lot of adrenaline into our system, which responds by shutting down the digestive system and expelling what is in it, which is why high anxiety can lead to the desire to vomit or stomach cramps and a sudden bout of diarrhoea. When we do not either run or fight, our system has an excess of adrenaline which causes the muscles to shake.
The adrenaline will also increase our heart rate, which in turn affects our breathing. Hyperventilating is when breathing becomes irregular and too much oxygen is taken in. This raises the blood pressure and can lead to fainting or passing out.
When we tense our bodies, the muscles around our chest constrict making it hard to breathe and making it feel like there is a heavy weight on it, causing pain and/or heart palpitations.

All three are triggered by the mind and the thoughts we have in our head. And when the body reacts and we become more scared, we increase the anxiety, thus creating a cycle of anxiety.
“Don’t believe every thing you think.”Byron Katie

To overcome my anxiety attacks I had to re-learn to physically relax, to breathe differently. Initially, I believed that if I let myself relax I wouldn't be able to control the anxiety attacks, but of course this fear would keep the tension in my body and the cycle of anxiety going.

It wasn't until I did actually learn to relax (through relaxation techniques and audio tapes) that I found out it wasn't true - and that in fact it wasn't possible to be in an anxious state once I was in a relaxed state.

The most important thing I had to learn was to think differently; I needed to reprogram my thoughts and thinking. I learnt that it was NOT a feeling that triggered the panicked thoughts - as I previously believed (the sensation of wanting to be sick) - it was in fact the other way round - a thought triggered the feeling - for me the thought of 'I feel sick, I'm going to be sick'.

So besides the work on breaking the anxiety attacks themselves, I had to work on this too - I had to try and catch the thoughts I was having that were triggering the emotional response. I then had to review them, undo them, and rewrite them.

But how was I going to do that? By backtracking my thoughts and emotions.

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