Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Defeating and Decoding Anxiety

I am writing this in the earnest hope that the content of this piece comes of use to those out there who have faced or continue to face the onslaught of anxiety and related disorders.  
People who suffer from anxiety do not have it easy. Anxiety disorder may take many forms, from mild to severe in intensity . Anxiety disorders plague an increasingly huge percentage of the world's population today and take forms such as generalised anxiety disorder, specific phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and panic attacks. These manifestations sometimes severely damage a person's ability to lead a normal life.
Anxiety and its many forms debilitate in ways that can cripple the sufferer and condemn him to a very restricted and confined existence in more ways than one.   In order to overcome anxiety, we need to first understand how it works.... physiologically and physiologically. Then we must understand our unique brand of anxiety - the unique way anxiety manifests in each of us, including the triggers, the way our mind and body react, signs and symptoms etc. Then we must formulate our strategy based on our general understanding of anxiety and how it works. Lastly, we must implement the strategy with will-power, persistence and commitment.   

How it all began
Anxiety is actually a healthy human instinct. It was designed by nature to protect us from danger and threat to our lives.... conditions that existed when we were apes, living in caves and constantly facing the threat of a wild animal attack or of an unexpected natural calamity. These were conditions over which we didn't have control. What we mean by anxiety is nothing but a set of signals that our brain, the amygdala to be more precise, sends to our body when it senses danger of any sort. When these signalsare received by the body, a set of physiological changes kick in, roughly referred to as the 'fight or flight' response. Again, this response was designed to help us fight the attacking wild animal, or flee from the place of danger. On release of adrenalin, the heart starts to pump faster, getting ready to supply more blood for the fight or the run; the lungs breathe in more air, our muscles become tense and our digestion slows as blood is diverted away from the stomach to the large muscles and the brain. All these responses were apt and necessary in the ape age.  
But things are different today. Anxiety has fast arisen as a psychological and partly physiological condition needing treatment in many of us today, sometimes unfortunately with medication. The reason is that the anxiety response mechanism that was appropriate earlier is now experienced by us today, in a day and age when there are no wild animals chasing us and we have safe, secure homes protecting us from a storm or any such danger. Our anxieties today arise from things unrelated to raw survival and have been sublimated into anxieties of the workplace, of time deadlines and family pressures. These trigger off our outdated anxiety response.

What makes it difficult
Unfortunately, this is not a simple problem. Since the anxiety response of the brain is so deeply ingrained and is intertwined so closely with our survival instinct, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to shut it off at will. The switch on switch off mechanism of the anxiety response is instinctive, and worse still, gets reinforced with habit. So people suffering from anxiety disorders feel helpless and resort to medication.   But the problem with medication is that the body gets addicted to artificial chemicals to keep calm and reverts to its anxious behaviour soon after medication is discontinued. So, resorting to medication is only a temporary relief, not a lasting cure for the problem.
I have myself been through extremely anxious phases in my life which triggered a temporary but debilitating anxiety disorder characterised by panic attacks, food addictions and agoraphobia. I have known people who have chronic anxiety too.   Anxiety disorder manifests in each sufferer very differently. Some people develop phobias of specific things, like open spaces or closed spaces, of crowds, of darkness etc. Some others develop obsessive habits like repeating a ritual many times before they leave their homes. Some others resort to food as a comforting factor and become addicted to sugars or carbohydrates. Some others have phobia of social situations, some take to addictions. These are just coping strategies for intense fears triggered deep within.

The path to defeating Anxiety
In an effort to find a medication-free solution to this problem, I researched for many years and myself experimented with many techniques. I was very heartened to discover for myself that there is a way to reverse the inappropriate anxiety response pattern characterising anxiety disorders. Without medication! It worked for me and has, as I have come to understand now, helped countless anxiety sufferers out there in the world. Simple techniques that are powerful and effective and when followed with persistence and effort, can slowly and surely change the mechanism of anxiety response in our minds and eventually our brain.
Given below are what I believe to be extremely effective means to overcome and defeat our anxiety disorder ourselves!

Step 1
Understand your anxiety response. Put them down in a diary. What triggers your anxiety? How does it manifest? Do stressful situations at work set off the anxiety response? Or is it certain specific situations or interaction with certain people? Is it being in a certain kind of place - for example crowded places, lifts, open spaces etc? What are the manifestations of your anxiety - what are the physical sensations you feel? Does your heart race? Do you feel the need to vomit? Do you feel faint? How about emotional manifestations - do you feel vulnerable, sensitive and touchy? Do you feel like avoiding crowds? Do you express your anxiety through nervous and fidgety body behaviour? Do you feel easily suspicious? Do you feel a sense of impending doom? Do you feel suicidal? Do you become obsessive? Do you stuff yourself with food or go hungry for long periods? Do you have surreal experiences like feeling detached from your body or a dream-like floating feeling? What fears do you have about your body and your safety? Do you become hypochondriacal?   No matter what you feel , however weird or bizarre your symptoms may seem to you, watch them and try your best to not judge! Accept it and understand that you are a normal human being whose anxiety response has become a bit hypersensitive... That's all! KEEP TELLING YOURSELF THAT! You can develop an ability to understand your anxiety response better if you meditate, or at least spend some time in silence just observing yourself. Some people take the help of an external party like a friend or a counsellor to help them with this.  

Step 2
Once you've identified how your anxiety manifests, you can begin the work of reversing your mind's, and consequently your brain's,behavior pattern. Take a notepad and note down how your anxiety is debilitating you and how different you would want your life to be from what it is? For example if you have agoraphobia or fear of open spaces, you may write 'My fear of open spaces stops me from enjoying going out with my friends to the beach'. Follow this up with a powerfully positive statement expressing your desire. For example ' I would like to be able to go a pristine beach and lie down and enjoy the vastness of the sky'. What this exercise does is shows you two points - the point where you are at and the point where you want to be. It gives you a clear goal and clear aim. What it also does is that it turns something currently negative to something positive in the future. Like they say, darkness can be removed only with light. Similarly negative forces can be nullified only by positive ones.  

Step 3
 Resolve to challenge each of your anxious behaviour patterns one by one, slowly and surely. Remember that while doing this, you need to keep you goals small and achievable initially. And celebrate every time you succeed. For example, a person who feels dizzy every time he has to take a flight has to first tell himself, “This is just a symptom of inappropriate anxiety. This time, when I fly, I will ignore the dizziness, and the moment I feel better, I will find one thing I can do on the plane that gives me pleasure.' The pleasurable thing can be as simple a thing as eating your favorite snack or solving a puzzle or playing a game on your laptop or phone. If you are a person who gets a panic attack in crowded places, say to yourself, “I am brave for facing my fear of crowded places.I am not alone in my fears, and anxiety is something many people in the world are familiar with. Instead of feeling defeated, I will smile and go on to have a great day after my panic attack!”And when you manage to do this, celebrate by telling yourself “I am a step closer to getting rid of my anxiety!”. When you habituate your mind in small doses to what it fears, the hold of the fear loosens. Also remember to motivate yourself with some reward for facing your fears. But remember to take it slow and easy and do this in small steps.  

 Step 4
 Learn healthy coping techniques. Your anxiety symptoms are just inappropriate, ineffective coping mechanisms of your mind. Teach your mind and body better ways to cope. Some effective techniques of coping with symptoms of anxiety are listed below.  
 1. Diversion .... Use powerful diversion techniques to draw your mind away from anxiety. A compelling game, a movie, talking to a friend, shopping, and so on. Identify what distracts you most effectively when you are panicking or are anxious and use that technique. Remember that the technique should be one that draws you FULLY into it and COMPLETELY distracts your mind. Half hearted distractions will not do the trick.  
2. Exercise .... Exercise is a great way to tackle anxiety both physically and mentally. Physically, it uses up the excess adrenalin produced and releases muscle tension. Mentally, during exercise, the brain releases feel-good chemicals like dopamine and endorphins that remove pain and give you feelings of pleasure - a very welcome change from the nerves of an anxiety attack. You could also take dancing lessons and dance away your anxiety!  
3. Music.... Singing, playing an instrument or even listening to your favorite music can be a powerfully effective anti-anxiety technique. Sincewe become self involved and inward-looking during an anxiety spell, music helps you engage with something outside of yourself. While singing or listening to familiar favorite songs, one is drawn into the music and away from anxiety. Familiar songs also trigger happy memories which in turn release feel-good hormones.  
4. People .... Having people around, family, friends, even close colleagues or any group of people you like and trust, has an ability to make you feel secure and protected, even if it is not a conscious feeling. To take an analogy from the animal world, it is what a cub or a baby elephant feels when it is with its pride or herd. Since we feel vulnerable and unprotected like babies, when we are anxious, being around people instills a feeling of comfort and security. Of course, sometimes it can feel claustrophobic to be around people when one is having a panicor an anxiety attack. Nevertheless, as a general rule, try to develop a circle of people who know your problem and who you can trust - people who know you enough to give you the space you need while still providing comfort and security from a distance. In the long term, the security of loving people goes a long way in reducing the anxiety response.  
5. Healthy food.... Treat your body to a sumptuous and a healthy meal with lots of fruits, vegetables, proteins and the appropriate amount of fats and carbohydrates. Drink copious amounts of water. Don't go hungry for long periods, since some physiological conditions like hypoglycemia and dehydration worsen feelings of anxiety. Hormonal imbalances can also give you anxious feelings. So keep your health in check and make sure you get treated in case you have any physiological factor exacerbating your anxiety condition.
  6. Meditation.... Meditation is an excellent way to both still and calm your mind and body and also do some powerful observing and introspection at the same time. It might be difficult to meditate at the same time you're having an anxiety or panic attack, in which case, you can allow the panic to settle using one of the other techniques listed above and then sit to meditate. The insights you will learn about yourself in a meditative state will go a long way in understanding your anxiety intelligently, tackling it and finally defeating it.  

Never Forget!

 While following the above steps towards recovery from anxiety disorders, keep the following in mind always!  
1. Anxiety disorder in most cases is not a disease... It is just a hypersensitive survival instinct manifesting as a psychological and physiological response. Repeating anxious behavior becomes a habit of your brain and mind.
 2. Panic attacks and anxiety bouts, however intense they may feel, cannot harm you or kill you! They are just natural defence mechanisms of the mind which have been reset to a lower than average threshold levels.
3. Anxiety cannot really be cured with medication. Medication may only temporarily control the chemical imbalance in the brain resulting from anxious behavior. True recovery can happen only with the person's desire, will and persistence.
4. Anxiety disorder CAN be reversed with conscious, powerful behavioural change.
5. Even though reversing the anxiety response of the mind and brain takes time and persistence, such an effort is richly rewarded with an almost complete, and in many cases permanent, freedom from anxiety disorder.
6. Behaviour patterns and thoughts that feed anxiety make it more deeply entrenched. Overindulging anxiety by over-analysing and over-researching your condition can derail or slow down your recovery.
 7. Anything negative can be removed only something powerfully positive. Anxiety disorder can be corrected only with the positive forces of hope, laughter, happiness, love, acceptance and inspiration.  
What I have said above has proved very effective in tackling and even reversing anxiety for myself and also, as I have discovered, for countless others. These are people who have, in one way or the other, knowingly or unknowingly, used the above techniques to tackle and defeat their anxiety condition.  
Do not consider your fight against anxiety a dreary journey but rather a journey towards a fuller and a happier life! Good luck!

1 comment: