Updated: Jan 8, 2019
So there I was, sitting in the back of my mom’s car; crying, shaking, my heart was racing, and I was lacking complete control of my body.
I couldn’t explain why I was so upset; I just knew that she couldn’t leave me. I couldn’t put my thoughts or feelings into words. After all, I was only 12 years old. I was terrified and 100% convinced that something was going to happen to me if I had to stay at school alone.
After about 10 minutes of telling her that my stomach hurt and that I thought I was going to pass out because I couldn’t breathe, I finally mustered up the strength to tell her I was scared.
The few racing questions that I could slowdown enough to understand included:
What if something happened to me at school?
If something happened to me, would anyone be there to help me?
Would I be made fun of by other kids and excluded if I got sick at school, passed out, or something else embarrassing happened?
Although this was my first panic attack, it definitely wasn’t my last. If I was to be completely transparent with you, I had a panic attack when I got on an airplane 18 days ago.
Even though I have been having panic attacks for over 15 years, they still scare the crap out of me and somehow convince me that something terrible and tragic is going to happen.
Luckily though, I have figured out how to ACCEPT and MANAGE my anxiety. Mine will likely never go away. It goes on vacation occasionally but it will never fully leave.
Why? Because I cannot remove the part of my brain where the anxiety stems from—the amygdala.
In this week’s article, I hope to achieve two things:
1) To help you begin to accept your anxiety—not condone it ruling your life and taking control, but rather, give yourself grace when it pops-up; and
2) To teach you a trick to how to start managing your anxiety. These tips may not work for everyone but it’s a great starting point.
Acceptance rather than Control of Anxiety
One of the most common goals people state in my office is that they would like to “control their anxiety.” Unfortunately, our desire to want to “control” our anxiety is the very reason it runs around like crazy.
When you start to try to control something you focus on the problem more. Think about it, if you want to control your anger, you are drastically more aware of when it creeps up.
In addition, when we start to experience the anxiety, we then beat ourselves up for having it because we are supposed to be “controlling it.”
I also advocate for acceptance because anxiety is suppose to be in your brain and is an important function.
That’s right, folks—It’s supposed to be there. The amygdala is an almond sized structure in the brain that is responsible for your “fight or flight” decisions—meaning that a brain without an amygdala won’t experience fear.
EVERYONE has this part of the brain. Some brains are just wired to allow the amygdala to take over more rather than the frontal lobe, which is responsible for logical decision making, planning, and thinking.
You’ll often notice that when having an anxiety attack, it’s difficult to think and make a decision. This is because your brain has wired itself to check in with the amygdala first (freak out and panic), then the frontal lobe (thinking and planning).
The more you try to control your anxiety, the more you wire your brain to go to your amygdala first—because you are panicking when you try and control things. Where as, if you start to accept your anxiety, your frontal lobe is more activated—because you are engaging in thoughtful decision making to accept a part of your brain. Isn’t the human brain fascinating!?
Overcoming and Managing Anxiety
Now that we have discussed the effects that trying to control your anxiety can have on your brain, let’s jump right into managing it!
First, I’m going to give you short-term techniques. These tips allow you start managing your anxiety today rather than giving in to it. These are quick “go-to” activities.
Next, I will discuss a long-term technique that is to be used consistently, over time. The benefits of both types of techniques can be long lasting and help create new pathways in your brain.
Short-term immediate techniques to overcome anxiety
Tip 1: The first short-term technique I recommend should be used when you are experiencing an anxiety attack or an increase in fear and worry. I want you to state out-loud (if possible),
“Right now, everything is alright. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but right now everything is fine.”
Why is this helpful? For one, you are slowing the path in your brain to you amygdala and directing it to your frontal lobe. Your panic mode is slowing down and your thoughtful, present-minded mode increases.
By stating to yourself, that everything is okay, even if you don’t yet believe it, it will calm your amygdala.
Next, you are focusing on the present. Anxiety happens because your brain is attempting to predict future fears and worries rather than focusing on the present. This is why individuals who engage in mindfulness tend to have less anxiety—because they’re focusing on the present, not the future.
Many clients respond with, “But what if I don’t believe it?”
Great question! And my honest response is: I don’t care because that doesn’t actually matter.
If you say it enough, over time, you will start to believe this phrase. Usually, the time you start believing it is during the same time that your brain develops that new road to the frontal lobe! It goes back to the old theory that what you speak becomes your behaviors!
After all, what do you have to lose?!
Tip 2: My second technique is when you start to have an anxiety attack, do NOT leave the situation! Many clients tell me that when they start to panic, they leave the immediate situation in order to calm down.
This is counter-productive. When you leave the situation, you have told your anxiety “You’re right! This is dangerous and I have to leave!” Because you have given in and let your anxiety win, your brain path to your amygdala is further strengthened rather than having your frontal lobe take control.
This technique tends to make clients very uncomfortable but it works!! I advise clients that when you start to develop an anxiety attack, look at our phone or clock. Stay exactly where you are for two minutes and focus on your breathing.
When the two minutes is up, you are free to go but if you do this on a regular basis, the attack will go away by the time the two minutes is over. Don’t let the anxiety win!
Tip 3: Often times, people stop logically thinking in the middle of their anxiety. Again, this is because your front lobe shuts off. When we stop thinking, we stay stuck in the anxiety rather than walking all the way through it.
For example, I recently had a mother who told me she was developing panic attacks after a recent emergency surgery. She stated that during an anxiety attack, she only focused on, “I’m going to pass out.
My body isn’t healthy. I need emergency care.” During session, I had her practice “walking through” the attack by asking her, “And if you passed out, what is the worse thing that could realistically happen?”
She explained that someone would likely stop to help her and an ambulance would come to stabilize her. The moment she walked through it she said, “Wow, passing out wouldn’t be so bad.”
Now, many of you will have imaginations that runaway with themselves but really think, what can realistically happen if _______ happens? Who could help you? Who could you reach out to?
What resources do you have that could help? You’ll be surprised how competent you are! Also, answering these questions triggers the planning part of your brain—the frontal lobe!
Long-term techniques to overcome anxiety
Now there are several long-term techniques that I use with clients but this article cannot possibly hold all of them so I’ll focus on my favorite one due to how much it works.
Much of this technique comes from my favorite model of therapy called, Solution-Focused Brief Therapy. The main component is to focus on times and occasions when you aren’t experiencing the anxiety.
Grab a piece of paper and pen and write out an answer to: What do you want to feel instead of the anxiety? For everything that we “take away,” we have to put something in it’s place, so what do you want in the anxiety’s place?
This actually ties into the free ebook that I wrote on creating goals, so go download that book and create a goal that consists of replacing the anxiety with something.
Next, start journaling times when you have previously been able to accomplish that goal and replace the anxiety.
For example, if you’re goal is to experience “more peace by taking deep breaths and focus on the present moment” how did you do it in past instances? What was different about those times? How did you do it? Who helped you?
This question helps you recognize potential solutions that you have previously used.
After a bit of journaling, I ask clients to spend about one month focusing on times their anxiety is not occurring and make note of how they are managing it.
Why do I do this?
For one, it trains your brain to focus on the positive, not the negative! You’ll start to realize there are numerous times that you can manage your anxiety.
Secondly, This activity brings you into the present and allows you to be mindful of what is occurring in the here and now.
Finally, it puts more resources into your toolkit! When you recognize the good times, you’ll have those techniques to use in the future!
Anxiety can be a scary thing. It often feels like you are spiraling out-of-control. My main techniques are to help you bring your attention to the present moment AND help you recognize the tools and resources you have.
Doing these techniques will help your brain begin to strength connections to the frontal lobe rather than letting the amygdala take over!
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