by Nithya Rajendran
Anxiety can cripple and destroy lives. Fortunately, there are ways and means of returning to normalcy even from acute cases of anxiety, assures Nithya Rajendran
I am writing this in the earnest hope that it may help all those afflicted with anxiety and related disorders. Anxiety and its many forms debilitate the sufferer, and condemn him to a very restricted and confined existence. In order to overcome anxiety, we need to first understand how it works – physiologically and psychologically. Then we must understand our unique brand of anxiety: the unique way anxiety manifests in each of us, including the triggers, the way our mind and body react, and signs and symptoms. Then we must formulate our strategy based on our general understanding of anxiety, and how it works. Lastly, we must implement the strategy with will power, persistence and commitment.
Anxiety is actually a healthy human instinct. It was designed by nature to protect us from conditions that existed when we were living in caves and constantly facing the threat of a wild animal attack, or of an unexpected natural calamity. What we mean by anxiety is nothing but a set of signals that our brain, the amygdala, to be more precise, sends to our body when it senses danger of any sort. When these signals are received by the body, a set of physiological changes kick in, roughly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
But things are different today. Anxiety has fast arisen as a psychological and partly physiological condition needing treatment in many of us today, sometimes unfortunately with medication. The reason is that the anxiety response mechanism that was appropriate earlier is now experienced by us today, in a day and age when there are no wild animals chasing us, and we have safe, secure homes protecting us from a storm or any such danger. Our anxieties today arise from things unrelated to raw survival, and have been sublimated into anxieties of the workplace, of time deadlines and family pressures. These trigger off our outdated anxiety response.
What makes it difficult
Unfortunately, this is not a simple problem. Since the anxiety response of the brain is so deeply ingrained, and is intertwined so closely with our survival instinct, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to shut it off at will. The switch-on, switch-off mechanism of the anxiety response is instinctive, and worse still, gets reinforced with habit. So people suffering from anxiety disorders feel helpless and resort to medication. But the problem with medication is that the body gets addicted to artificial chemicals to keep calm, and reverts to its anxious behavior soon after the medication is discontinued.
I have myself been through extremely anxious phases in my life which triggered a temporary but debilitating anxiety disorder characterised by panic attacks, food addictions and agoraphobia. I have known people who have chronic anxiety too. Anxiety disorder manifests in each sufferer very differently. Some people develop phobias of specific things, like open spaces or closed spaces, of crowds, or of darkness. Some others develop obsessive habits like repeating a ritual many times before they leave their homes. Some others resort to food as a comforting factor, and become addicted to sugars or carbohydrates. Some others have phobia of social situations, some take to addictions. These are just coping strategies for intense fears triggered deep within.
How to defeat anxiety
In an effort to find a medication-free solution to this problem, I researched for many years and experimented with many techniques. I was very heartened to discover for myself that there is a way to reverse the inappropriate anxiety response pattern characterising anxiety disorders. Without medication! It worked for me and has, as I have come to understand now, helped countless anxiety sufferers out there in the world. Simple techniques that are powerful and effective, and when followed with persistence and effort, can slowly and surely change the mechanism of anxiety response in our minds, and eventually our brain.
Understand your anxiety response. Put them down in a diary. What triggers your anxiety? How does it manifest? Do stressful situations at work set off the anxiety response? Or is it certain specific situations or interaction with certain people? Is it being in a certain kind of place – for example crowded places, lifts, or open spaces? What are the physical manifestations of your anxiety? Does your heart race? Do you feel the need to vomit? Do you feel faint?
How about emotional manifestations – do you feel vulnerable, sensitive and touchy? Do you feel like avoiding crowds? Do you express your anxiety through nervous and fidgety body behaviour? Do you feel easily suspicious? Do you feel a sense of impending doom? Do you feel suicidal? Do you become obsessive? Do you stuff yourself with food, or go hungry for long periods? Do you have surreal experiences like feeling detached from your body, or a dream-like floating feeling? What fears do you have about your body and your safety? Do you become hypochondriacal? No matter what you feel, however weird or bizarre your symptoms may seem to you, watch them and try your best to not judge! Accept it and understand that you are a normal human being whose anxiety response has become a bit hypersensitive… That’s all! KEEP TELLING YOURSELF THAT! You can develop an ability to understand your anxiety response better if you meditate, or at least spend some time in silence just observing yourself. Some people take the help of an external party like a friend or a counsellor to help them with this.
Once you’ve identified how your anxiety manifests, you can begin the work of reversing your mind’s, and consequently your brain’s, behavior pattern. Take a notepad and note down how your anxiety is debilitating you, and how different you would want your life to be from what it is. For example, if you have agoraphobia or fear of open spaces, you may write, ‘My fear of open spaces stops me from enjoying going out with my friends to the beach’. Follow this up with a powerful positive statement expressing your desire. For example ‘I would like to be able to go to a pristine beach and lie down and enjoy the vastness of the sky.’ This exercise shows you where you are at, and where you want to be. It gives you a clear goal and clear aim. It also turns something currently negative to something positive in the future. Like they say, darkness can be removed only with light. Similarly, negative forces can be nullified only by positive ones.
Resolve to challenge each of your anxious behaviour patterns one by one, slowly and surely. Remember that while doing this, you need to keep your goals small and achievable, initially. And celebrate every time you succeed. For example, a person who feels dizzy every time he has to take a flight has to first tell himself, “This is just a symptom of inappropriate anxiety. This time, when I fly, I will ignore the dizziness, and the moment I feel better, I will find one thing I can do on the plane that gives me pleasure.’ The pleasurable thing can be as simple a thing as eating your favourite snack, or solving a puzzle, or playing a game on your laptop or phone. If you are a person who gets a panic attack in crowded places, say to yourself, “I am brave for facing my fear of crowded places. I am not alone in my fears, and anxiety is something many people in the world are familiar with. Instead of feeling defeated, I will smile and go on to have a great day after my panic attack!” And when you manage to do this, celebrate by telling yourself “I am a step closer to getting rid of my anxiety!” When you habituate your mind in small doses to what it fears, the hold of the fear loosens. Also remember to motivate yourself with some reward for facing your fears. But remember to take it slow and easy and do this in small steps.
Learn healthy coping techniques. Your anxiety symptoms are just inappropriate, ineffective coping mechanisms of your mind. Teach your mind and body better ways to cope. Some effective techniques of coping with symptoms of anxiety are listed below.
1. Diversion: Use powerful diversion techniques to draw your mind away from anxiety. A compelling game, a movie, talking to a friend, shopping, and so on. Identify what distracts you most effectively when you are panicking, or are anxious, and use that technique. Remember that the technique should draw you FULLY into it and COMPLETELY distract your mind. Half-hearted distractions will not do.
2. Exercise: Exercise is a great way to tackle anxiety both physically and mentally. Physically, it uses up the excess adrenalin produced and releases muscle tension. Mentally, during exercise, the brain releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins that remove pain and give you feelings of pleasure. You could also take dancing lessons and dance away your anxiety!
3. Music: Singing, playing an instrument, or even listening to your favourite music can be a powerfully effective anti-anxiety technique. Since we become self-involved and inward-looking during an anxiety spell, music helps you engage with something outside of yourself. While singing or listening to familiar favourite songs, one is drawn into the music and away from anxiety. Familiar songs also trigger happy memories which, in turn, release feel-good hormones.
4. People: Having family, friends, even close colleagues or any group of people you like and trust, around you, can make you feel secure and protected, even if unconsciously. To take an analogy from the animal world, it is what a cub or a baby elephant feels when it is with its pride or herd. Since we feel vulnerable and unprotected like babies, when we are anxious, being around people instils a feeling of comfort and security. Of course, sometimes it can feel claustrophobic to be around people when one is having a panic or an anxiety attack. Nevertheless, as a general rule, try to develop a circle of people who know your problem, and who you can trust, and who can give you the space you need while still providing comfort and security from a distance. In the long term, the security of loving people goes a long way in reducing the anxiety response.
5. Healthy food: Treat your body to a sumptuous and healthy meal with lots of fruits, vegetables, proteins and the appropriate amount of fats and carbohydrates. Drink copious amounts of water. Don’t go hungry for long periods, since some physiological conditions like hypoglycemia and dehydration worsen feelings of anxiety. Hormonal imbalances can also give you anxiety. So keep your health in check, and make sure you get treated in case you have any physiological factor exacerbating your anxiety condition.
6. Meditation: Meditation is an excellent way to both still and calm your mind and body, and also do some powerful observing and introspection at the same time. It might be difficult to meditate while having an anxiety or panic attack. Allow the panic to settle using one of the other techniques listed above and then sit to meditate. The insights you will learn about yourself in a meditative state will go a long way in understanding your anxiety intelligently, tackling it and finally defeating it.
While following the above steps towards recovery from anxiety disorders, keep the following in mind always!
1. Anxiety disorder in most cases is not a disease… It is just a hypersensitive survival instinct manifesting as a psychological and physiological response. Repeating anxious behavior becomes a habit of your brain and mind.
2. Panic attacks and anxiety bouts, however intense they may feel, cannot harm or kill you! They are just natural defence mechanisms of the mind which have been reset to a lower than average threshold levels.
3. Anxiety cannot really be cured with medication. Medication may only temporarily control the chemical imbalance in the brain resulting from anxious behavior. True recovery can happen only with the person’s desire, will and persistence.
4. Anxiety disorder CAN be reversed with conscious, powerful behavioural change.
5. Even though reversing the anxiety response of the mind and brain takes time and persistence, such an effort is richly rewarded with an almost complete, and in many cases permanent, freedom from anxiety disorder.
6. Behaviour patterns and thoughts that feed anxiety make it more deeply entrenched. Overindulging anxiety by over-analysing and over-researching your condition can derail or slow down your recovery.
7. Anything negative can be removed only by something powerfully positive. Anxiety disorder can be corrected only with the positive forces of hope, laughter, happiness, love, acceptance and inspiration.
Do not consider your fight against anxiety a dreary journey but rather a journey towards a fuller and a happier life! Good luck!
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