“It makes no difference to the brain/body system whether something actually happened or not. What we feel about our experience creates our ‘reality,’ our model of the world. Emotion releases hormonal patterns which activate circulation, muscles and organic response as well as etching memory. Again, the brain and body respond in exactly the same way to both real and imagined experience.”
– Gordon Stokes & Daniel Whiteside, Tools of the Trade
“A little bit stressed is like a little bit pregnant. There is no such thing as a small stressor. All stressors go into one pot to assault your body’s resources. In other words, stress accumulates.”
–Sharon Promislow, Making the Brain Body Connection
When I was a teenager, my mother and I frequently watched those “women in peril” made-for-TV movies on Sunday nights, starring Judith Light or Meredith Baxter Birney or some other mainstream TV actress. Usually halfway through the two-hour special, our paranoia kicked in and we began securing all the windows and doors. Was that a sound coming from downstairs? I’m afraid to go to the bathroom by myself! Stand outside the door! By the end of the show, we’d be so hyped up, so full of anxiety, that we’d block all the doors to outside so we’d have an early warning system in case someone tried to break in. And, during those nights, we often had bad dreams and trouble sleeping.
Even today I’m still trying to understand why in the world we watched those shows. They terrified us, and even more, they increased our already-heightened worries about being women in our culture. Certainly, we felt relieved at the end when the woman escaped, overcame a difficult situation, or achieved some kind of triumphant result. But, what was the cost?
I tell this story because it is just one example of the ways in which I have experienced self-created anxiety when there was no real threat. I mostly felt “spooked” after watching those shows, but I have also experienced true panic attacks—anxiety that emerged because of overwhelm, stress, or trauma. Most of us experience moments when anxiety takes over, even when there are no real threats to our safety or survival. Think of the anxiety you feel before public speaking or prior to a job interview or a test. Regardless of the cause – whether real, imagined, or re-recreated from a past trauma – we experience anxiety in our physical body. Our body reacts whether or not a sabre-toothed tiger is actually chasing us. If we think he is chasing us, then our body believes us.
What does your anxiety feel like? I feel the fight/flight center of my body (or Third Chakra) activating and I feel the blood rush away from my extremities and to my center, my core. Breathing becomes difficult, labored, and I have often had to still myself by conscious breathing techniques. Sometimes I've felt faint, other times very tired and unable to think. Everyone experiences anxiety differently, but there are things we can do in the moment to care for ourselves.
One such self-care activity I have used with much success is called Balance Breathing. Balance Breathing, or Alternate-Nostril Breathing, is a technique I learned from a friend, but many people use this technique in different healing modalities. While the theory behind this breathing is to create balance between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, I find it incredibly calming, and have lulled myself out of feelings of anxiety—as well as acute panic attacks—using this technique.
Try this: Balance Breathing. You will be using your thumb and index finger to open and close your left and right nostrils. For example, if you are right handed, close your right nostril with your right thumb, take a full breath in and out of your left nostril, then close your left nostril with your right pointer finger and breathe in and out of your right nostril. Because this breathing takes some focus and time (be very slow and deliberate with each inhalation and exhalation), you will soon notice your whole mind-body system calming down. Give this technique some time to work. I’ve done Balance Breathing for five to ten minutes before. Usually, though, after two-three minutes you’ll notice a difference.
Try this: Explore your anxiety through finger painting. Anxiety can reflect some deep-rooted fears that could well be released through the act of painting. Get a piece of paper, wear grubby clothes, set out your paints, and get messy. What does your anxiety look like? Feel like? Is it hot red, screaming yellow, or cold ice blue? Do several paintings if you like, until you feel you’ve expressed your anxiety or until you feel a little shift in your body. For me, I sometimes suddenly feel tired. Then, I know I am done. What is this like for you?
What techniques or approaches work for you? Feel free to share your experiences if you like.