When we panic (or have anxiety attacks) a number of things happen to us. And we should know that in panic and high anxiety the symptoms that we experience are the same. The difference lies in the build up: anxiety usually builds up slowly, getting stronger and stronger until it becomes a full-blown attack; panic occurs instantly, usually in response to a clear and imminent threat or danger. An anxiety attack is, in effect, panic.
In both anxiety and panic we become jumpy and jittery, on-edge, charged with energy, ready for action. We feel 'in a rush', needing to do something. This can also be seen at times when we are not anxious or panicked, but actually in a rush, for example when we are late for something. In such situations we often feel anxious and 'panicky'.
This charge of energy within our body comes from two main things: our breathing and heartbeat - they both become considerably faster. We breathe faster to get more oxygen into the bloodstream to feed the main muscles for action (arms, chest, legs) and the heart speeds up to get this oxygen around our body to these muscles more quickly.
This 'rush', this charge of energy for action lies at the heart of anxiety attacks and panic. And when there is no real danger or threat (one we need the 'rush' to escape from) in order to calm down, we need to slow down and slow our body down.
The one way that we can actually reverse this process is by slowing down our breathing. Here, we, ourselves, can positively influence our nervous system by the physical action we take. By learning to breathe more slowly and deeply we can calm down.
And it's not just the speed of our breathing that is important but also how deeply we breathe. Fast shallow breathing reduces the level of Carbon Dioxide in the blood and can lead to further panic inducing symptoms. (This is why some people breathe into paper bags).
By replacing the fast, shallow breathing of anxiety and panic with deep slow breathing, where we breathe from the diaphragm (the muscular wall separating the lungs from the stomach) we redress the oxygen-CO2 balance in the body and promote a feeling of calmness.
Try diaphragmatic breathing:-
Take a deep breath in through your nose for a slow count of four (imagine the air filling your stomach, not lungs, and feel it expand)
Hold for a slow count of four
Breathe out through your mouth for a slow count of four (imagine your stomach pushing the air out)
Hold for a slow count of four
Repeat 3 or 4 times, no more
How do you feel?
With practice you can use this technique to calm down in those times you feel anxious or panicky where there is no real danger.
A very important thing to realise about the above is that knowing what is happening and why dramatically increases the power of the technique. Just telling someone who is panicking to breathe more slowly and deeply doesn't have the same effect.
With anxiety and panic we need to know what is happening and why to be able to take real control.
By Terry Dixon B.Sc.
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