Author: Michael Mantz, M.D.
If you get attacks of intense anxiety, you know how unpleasant the experience can be. When you are in the middle of an anxiety storm, your body’s autonomic nervous system, specifically its sympathetic nervous system (aka fight or flight system) is kicking into high gear dumping adrenaline and noradrenaline into your system.
Your heart beats faster and stronger, your breath rate speeds up, and the blood flow in your body is redirected to your vital organs and away from your extremities. All the adaptations of the sympathetic nervous system are designed to rapidly mobilize all your body’s resources to prepare it to either fight or take flight in order to maximize its chances to survive a potential threat. This fight or flight system is estimated to be 400 million years old and is a powerful survival system that has served us well. You would not be reading this if you didn’t have this system built into your body.
When you’re having an anxiety attack the fight or flight system kicks into high gear – releasing chemicals to speed up your heart rate (which can cause us to feel palpitations). Your blood flow shifts away from your extremities and into your larger muscles and vital organs which can cause your hands and feet to feel cold and clammy.
As the energy production in our body increases it raises our core temperature and the activity of our nerve cells – which can increase the amount of heat we feel in our core and may make us sweat more.
Your breathing becomes more rapid and we generally breath more from our chest area. If we are not physically active at the time, we wind up hyperventilating and breathing off too much carbon dioxide. This can cause our muscles to become hyperexcitable leading to twitching and tingling sensations throughout our body which most often occurs in our hands and around our mouths. We may also feel increased muscle tightness and tension in and around our belly, chest, and throat areas. This can lead to an undesirable feeling that you are having trouble breathing and not being able to get a satisfying breath.
Our mind often interprets these feelings as if we are not getting enough oxygen when paradoxically we have plenty of oxygen but are exhaling out too much carbon dioxide.
The increase in nervous system energy can create sensations of restlessness that cause us to fidget. If the anxiety intensity gets high enough it can activate an ancient third arm of the autonomic nervous system called the dorsal vagal system which begins to activate an immobilization or freeze response which feels like your body is becoming heavier and harder to move while simultaneously feeling tremendous energy inside.
These seemingly paradoxical experiences of breathing too much and feeling like you can’t breathe, and mobilizing too much energy while feeling yourself get heavier and finding it more difficult to move, occur when your fight or flight system is triggered by a false alarm. When your thinking mind continues to believe there is a real threat but there is no real threat to be dealt with your body-mind is left in a state of confusion and conflict that can generate an array of uncomfortable sensations and experiences.
The good news is that your body is well equipped to handle high levels of acute stress. In fact, your body is far better at handling intense nervous system arousal than its opposite. Intense nervous system depression can result in dangerous suppression of your respiratory drive which the body has difficulty handling and can result in coma or death. This is one of the reasons why nervous system depressants such as opioid medications are generally far more lethal and dangerous than stimulants in the short term.
One of the most annoying things to hear when you are having an intense anxiety attack is to “calm down” as if you had a switch that you could simply shut off and that you simply needed someone to remind you about your magical anxiety-off switch.
A better approach to bringing down the intensity of high levels of anxiety is to strengthen the opposite part of your autonomic system – your parasympathetic nervous system (the rest, digest, and rejuvenation system: “the RDR system”).
The following are 6 strategies specifically developed to strengthen and give a boost to your RDR system to help lower the fight or flight system and swiftly bring your intense anxiety levels down.
1) One Big Ass Breath: (straighten your spine) Take one big slow inhale through your nose and down into your belly and keep breathing in until you fill both your bottom and upper lungs. Keep inhaling to fill from front to back. Hold for 2-3 seconds and then let all of your air out with a nice long exhale through your mouth with an audible sigh “Ahhhhhhhhh” and let go. Wait and let your body inhale spontaneously through your nose (make no effort to inhale on your part – completely let go and let your body take over). Make no effort to control your breath and continue to nose breathe afterwards. You can use this technique once every 3-5 minutes during an episode.
2) The Buddha Belly – Place one hand on your heart and the other hand over your belly button. Use your thinking mind to suggest to your body to make the bottom hand move more than the upper hand. Then let go of any effort and let the body do the rest. If the anxiety is high and you’re having trouble sitting down, you can do this technique standing or walking. If you are experiencing racing thoughts, you can move your hands in gentle circles to act like a homing device to help bring your attention away from fearful thoughts and back to sensing your breath.
3) Three Acupressure Points: Bilaterally stimulate with the tips of your fingers the following points: ShenMen, Point Zero, then end on YinTang. The first two points are on the ear and are shown in the diagram below. The 3rd point Yintang is located at the midpoint between your eyebrows also known as your third eye. Scientific studies have shown that stimulating these points can strengthen and activate your RDR system and help counterbalance the fight or flight response. Stimulating your RDR system using these 3 points can help increase feelings of calmness and safety promoting a greater sense of balance. Stimulate each point bilaterally with both hands for about 1 minute and then move to the next point. You can repeat this several times if you notice some relief.
4) The Soothing Self-Kiss: Touch your lips together and gently massage them together. Your lips are wired with RDR nerves and when they are stimulated they activate the RDR system and turn up its power. I often combine the soothing self-kiss while I am stimulating the 3 acupuncture points described above.
5) Warm your hands: If your hands are cold and clammy put them under a stream of warm water. Direct your attention to sensing the temperature in your hands and how they are warming up. Notice the feel of the warm water on your hands and massage your fingers while the warm water bathes them.
Lets get personal: I would use this technique whenever I would get nervous before giving a public talk. I would keep my hands under the water and imagine myself delivering my presentation feeling calm, cool, and collective. My hands would usually warm up after a minute or so and I would feel a calming wave percolate throughout my body.
6) Get Some Rhythm – Move that Body: If the anxiety sensations are intense – moving your body can be helpful in processing the excess energy from the fight or flight system by feeding it into your active muscles. Rhythmic movements such as walking, jogging, moving your body back and forth and or shaking your hands/arms/whole body can help bring you back into balance.
Turn on soothing music and move your body to it to entrain your body with the music’s calming rhythm. This creates an interference movement pattern – one that is rhythmic and smooth to help reduce the anxiety movement pattern which is often choppy, chaotic, and out-of-sync.
It is best to practice these techniques several times while you are calm (not having an intense anxiety episode) so that you develop your skills in using them. You may want to include some of these techniques into your daily routine to help strengthen your RDR system and sharpen your skills at being able to power up your RDR system when you need to.
Lastly, it’s important that when you use these techniques that your main motivation is not towards avoiding and getting rid of your anxiety. Anxiety feeds on avoidance and if your main motivation doing these techniques is to eradicate your anxiety, it is likely that many of these techniques will lose their ability to be helpful. Have an attitude of curiosity and or compassion towards the uncomfortable and agitated body-mind In order to maximize the benefits of these techniques. That alone will add a significant boost to the power that these 6 techniques have.