Anxiety is Trashing My LifeJun 07, 2021
"ANXIETY IS TRASHING MY LIFE!!!", said John F.
"Anxiety might have a purpose though...." I suggested.
Here's how John responded:
"What? Seriously? No way. My anxiety has one purpose. To trash my life.
I can't live a normal life because of my anxiety. I don't feel comfortable in my own skin most of the time. When I'm out in a crowd I drink a lot or find some excuse to go hide at home.
My anxiety gets so bad that sometimes I don't feel like I even have the right to take up space. This feeling is so strong I find that I hold my breath so that I don't even take up THAT space.
It's ruining my life. And there is NO WAY this kind of anxiety has a purpose."
Anxiety is a Stress Response
The diagram above illustrates how the stress response becomes elevated and increasingly problematic over time affecting long-term health and well-being.
Let's use the example of test anxiety.
Marcy developed test anxiety in high school and college. Her stress was so strong - no matter how much and how far in advance she prepared, she would lose sleep days before the test. She couldn't eat. She was agitated and jumpy. When the day of the test arrived, Marcy would sweat and shake in a deathly panic. Her breath was so shallow she felt faint. Once the testing was through she'd often collapse for several days with a cold or the flu.
As an adult, Marcy reacts to her grown-up stressors in much the same way but now in addition to this she claims that sometimes she forgets to breathe, has neck pain, fibromyalgia, bouts of IBS, and a mild addiction to alcohol.
The Wounded Animal
Marcy's anxiety began early on as an exaggerated response to a stressor - tests. Her reactions to the stressor were physiological:
- She shook
- She sweated
- She couldn't sleep
- She couldn't eat
- She was agitated and jumpy
- She got sick
Marcy was displaying the same behaviors and symptoms an animal displays when it's wounded. And because it happened repeatedly over a long period of time it was real wear-and-tear on her health. Her system got so used to being in 'wounded animal mode' it got stuck there.
Over time Marcy developed conditions that couldn't be pinned to test taking but are often associated with an overactive stress response.
She was diagnosed with fibromyalgia while getting her master's degree after a few years of unexplainable pain, migraines etc. Her IBS-D developed after the birth of her two children and going back to work full-time. She reported a history of jaw clenching and associated headaches.
From Wounded Animal to Well-Fed Lion
Marcy got a lot of relief for her fibromyalgia, IBS-D, and headaches from yoga therapy. The key for her was developing a new pattern of breathing and moving to replace the old one. She needed to shift out of wounded animal mode and breathe more like a well-fed lion (top of the food chain, not a worry in the world, belly up in the sun).
Marcy's yoga therapy was designed around
- Gentle stretching and releasing of muscle groups with attention to releasing fibro trigger points
- An extremely gentle movement protocol to bring awareness of chronic holding patterns in the gut but not stimulate a movement.
- Developing inhale through movement to promote elasticity in the rib cage allowing for a deeper, more nourishing breath.
- Utilization of mild breath retention to build confidence
- Progressively lengthening exhale over time to bring down sympathetic activation (fight or flight) and boost parasympathetic (rest and digest).
- More specific application of breathing technique for reducing heat, inflammation, and stress
When Panic Strikes
Have you ever been in the middle of a panic attack and some well-meaning person says "Just breathe"?
Wrong. Thanks for trying though.
There is no way a person who is panicking like a wounded animal will be able to willfully calm themselves or take a deep breath. In fact, doing so may cause the panic to get worse.
One of the best things you can do if you're in a panic is to go for a brisk walk (take someone with you, of course). The initial few laps will serve to create a repetitive pattern that the wounded animal inside of you finds calming.
After a bit you will be able to coordinate your breath with the movement of your feet
"breathe in...two....three...four, breathe out...two...three...four"
The animal inside you will start to turn back into a human who can think clearly again.
I promise this works. This is what I do with my clients when panic strikes here in the office. We step outside and go for a brisk walk around the parking lot and after a few short laps we can discuss what happened.
When we seek to understand our conditions we have an opportunity to become an active partner with our healthcare advocates.
I welcome the opportunity to hear your story and work with you and your whole team so that you may live your best life possible
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