Everyone experiences stress in life, and, in general, anxiety is a common reaction to stress. Sometimes anxiety can linger longer than the external stressor, and the persistent feelings of apprehension or dread can lead to anxiety disorders and panic attacks. These worrisome thoughts cause a physiological activation in the body called the “fight or flight response”, triggered by a real or imagined threat to survival.
As your body perceives such a threat, the amygdala (often referred to as “lizard brain” or “reptilian brain”) tells your autonomic nervous system to prepare to run or fight for your life. Your heart rate and breathing quicken and you become hypervigilant to sense imminent danger. The “attack” affects the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for involuntary responses, which can include heart palpitations, tightness in the chest, lightheadedness, and feelings of being flushed or warmer than usual.
The parasympathetic nervous system slows the fight or flight response and activates your body’s “relaxation response” (a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson), which is essentially the exact opposite of the “fight or flight” response. It is your conscious ability to encourage your body to release signals to the brain that slow your muscles and organs down and increase blood flow to the brain, which produces a calm, relaxed feeling in the mind and body.
There are many simple, free techniques you can learn to switch on the parasympathetic nervous system to rapidly reduce feelings of anxiety and stress in the moment.
Here are some approaches to address the symptoms of an anxiety attack:
1.) Four Square Breathing can be used when you need to quickly cool down the mind and body. Intentional deep breathing calms and regulates the autonomic nervous system with immediate results. It also focuses your energy on the task at hand to minimize rumination and brings your awareness in to the present moment (as anxiety is a fear of the future).
Begin by exhaling all the air in your lungs.
a.) Take a deep inhale through the nose for the count of one, two, three, four.
b.) Hold the breath for one, two, three, four.
c.) Exhale through the mouth for one, two, three, four.
d.) Pause at the bottom for one, two, three, four.
Repeat the cycle four times.
2.) Dance. Dance like no one is watching! If you’re in the midst of an anxiety attack or feel the tinges of anxiety seeping through, turn on your favorite song and move your body. Not only does this release body tension, it helps shift your focus from worrisome thoughts to awareness of the present moment. Dance can quickly influence emotions, mood, and attitude because of the intrinsic relationship between the body and the mind, what happens to the body can affect the mind and vice versa.
3.) Take a walk. Walking (and other exercise) trigger the release of endorphins which create a positive feeling in the body. To help ease the psychological pain and discomfort associated with anxiety, take a break, put physical and mental distance between you and the environment. A fifteen minute walk may be just the thing you need to get your mind off the worry. Focus on the present moment by observing the environment around you: enjoy the fresh air, notice the sound of your feet as you walk along, window shop, listen to the birds, feel the breeze on your face, etc.
4.) Chant, hum, or sing. Studies have shown that the vibrational frequencies from chanting OM (including humming or singing a gentle song) resonate around the face and in to the brain, significantly deactivating the amygdala and autonomic nervous system. This is a useful exercise when you may have five to ten minutes to take a “self-care” break (i.e. between meetings or before public speaking); find a quiet space and lull your mind to ease.
(Find the study here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.
I’ve been lucky to experience the grounding, calming, and refocusing effects of each of these practices. I encourage you to experiment and find the physical or mental practice that best aids you personally in overcoming general anxiety as well as anxiety attacks.