The human brain is a clever organ. In a dangerous situation, it takes over the steering wheel to an auto mode. The fight-or-flight response is a natural reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying. The response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare our body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety.
In ancient times when our ancestors lived in caves and had frequent face-offs with bears, tigers or other life-threatening organisms (or situations), they could either fight or escape. We have the same physiological and psychological response hardwired in our brain to prepares the body to react to the danger. In layman's terms, it is like a reflex action, but prolonged.
Imagine face off with a hungry lion during one of those relaxing morning walks. Unlikely, I know but work with me here ... You are walking down the usual route and suddenly a lion appears in front of you. You wouldn't think twice but run. Faster than Forest Gump, I know I would. In that instant, our brains sympathetic nervous system (reflex action part of the brain) kicks in and shuts down the prefrontal cortex (thinking and reasoning part of the brain). We are out of reasoning and rationalising part of the brain and our brain's prime objective is to make sure we survive. So we fight or flight. Our body is prepared to fight or run and sometimes to freeze in fright. This brings in a number of physical changes to give the body increased strength.
- Blood pressure, heart rate and blood sugars levels increase in order to supply the body with extra energy.
- Increased muscle tension in order to provide the body with extra speed and strength.
- The vision is heightened or sometimes it is a tunnel vision.
- The onset of shallow breathing
- The blood clotting function of the body speeds up.
- Adrenaline hormone is released. So it provides energy and makes the person alert to take prompt action.
All the physiological changes help the body to sustain the imminent threat. However, in an anxious mind, like mine, has a constant notion of perceived threat. A small whiff or sound, some distant memory and in most of the times absolutely nothing triggers the fight or flight response. A sheer state of panic and confusion takes over. That situation is called a panic attack. I tend to avoid doing things that I feel are uncomfortable as I know my body would react in the following way and that might freak me out.
- Inability to breathe or swallow
- A feeling of constraining force around the chest
- Mild but concentrated pain in the chest
- Sweaty palms
- Cold hands and feets
- Pain in shoulders
- Feeling of terror
- Dry eyes due to heightened vision
- Having to pee frequently
- Feeling claustrophobic
- Lights feel too bright
- In an extreme case, numbness throughout the face
- Uncontrollable crying
Steps that I take to deal with anxiety
It is very important to have and maintain a strict routine. It helps in getting our body and our mind accustomed to our everyday life. The routine doesn't let the body get off balance by panic. Having a healthy body is the key to sound and calm mind, and vice versa. Thus to live a hearty life we should follow a wholesome lifestyle.
Eating healthy meals is vital for overall well being. Be fastidious to including all required nutrients in the diet. Eating on time is also crucial to routine. Staying hydrated is equally essential.
For me, I start my day with a glass of warm water followed by overnight soaked almonds. I focus on having balanced home-cooked meals. I make sure to include seasonal fruits and veggies. I drink from 3 to 4 litres of water a day.
When it comes to anxiety certain foods can feed it while others can soothe it. If you suffer from anxiety include seasonal fruits and veggies, lots of greens, eggs, yoghurt or buttermilk, walnuts, figs in your meals. Avoid coffee; Coffee activates the adrenaline gland and stimulates fight or fright response. Don't eat junk food or eat out too often.
Sleep hygiene includes a set of behaviours that one can adapt to help promote good sleep. It is a way of using behavioural interventions in our life that will help us start and maintain a good sleeping routine. Read more about it here
On a typical night, I brush my teeth and take a shower before going to bed. I put on comfy and clean nightwear. I turn on low-intensity light about 1 hour before bedtime and get away from my phone and other digital devices 30 minutes before going to sleep. I use the vanilla aroma in my room as it helps me calm my nerves. Last but not least I use sleeping meditation to doze off. I recommend the Headspace app they have some really nice guided meditation to sleep.
Calm the mind to relax the body
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. A way of practising mindfulness is by paying attention to our surrounding. I practice this by noticing 3 things that I can see, touch and hear and describe them in my mind. This doesn't let the mind roam. Trying to be in present physically as well as mentally instead of being at a place while our mind is wandering around in multiple mental scenarios.
In our day to day life, our phones are somewhat the culprits by distracting us (or we are the culprits for being distracted by the phones. Or the algorithms that the apps are using ... ) The tech companies iterate their algorithms to grab our attention. Our mind is being exposed to too many attractive amusements especially meant to get a hold on our mind's time, personally. If you think of it this fight for our attention amongst the different apps is kind of evil. It is taking us away from the natural course of being focused on the work in hands. At this point, it is up to us to procure the sound mental state by controlling and training our mind to deal with such distractions.
I keep my conscious focus on only one task at a moment. Whenever I acknowledge myself doing something on my computer screen while simultaneously doing something else on my phone. I immediately take my attention to one thing.
The benefits of meditation are numerous. For anxiety and depression, it trains the brain to be in the moment. It is believed that the human mind thinks an average of 70000 thoughts per day. If not half, some of them are bound to be negative and worrisome thoughts. Such thoughts are the food for anxiety. Meditation helps the mind in gaining control over thoughts.
Practising daily meditation for 10 to 15 minutes workes for me. It helps in building focus that is being deteriorated by my mind keeping multiple tabs on thoughts and emotions. By the end of the meditation session, I find my body calmer and my mind fresh. For instance, I have noticed that a part of my fight or flight response is a heightened vision due to which my anxious self makes my eyes feel quite dry, perhaps because of lesser blinking. After meditation, my eyes have just the right amount of moisture.
Writing down our thoughts works well to organise our thoughts. venting on a piece of paper is cathartic and releases the pent up emotions. Helps us explore our emotions and heal. I must admit, I am not as disciplined with keeping a journal as I am with keeping up my other anxiety curing activities. However, when I enforce it on myself I always find some of that mental fog coming clear. It rationalises the preoccupied mind and lifts the mood. After writing I feel as I have taken a step further towards wellness.
Relaxed body to calm the mind
One of the common things with anxiety is breathlessness. I find myself hyperventilating with shallow breaths. At the time of the panic attack, I cannot quite catch my breath. Doing breathing exercise helps in the better intake of oxygen, relieves stress, lowers the blood pressure and releases endorphins. Whenever I am overwhelmed, I try to catch a few deep breaths, focusing on the movement of the diaphragm as I inhale and exhale. It helps in calming the anticipated/ upcoming outburst of panic.
Relieves the physical symptoms of anxiety. My anxiety manifests as stiffness throughout my body to such an extent that I start feeling achy. Yoga helps in relaxing those muscles. It makes us aware of our body and gives us better control over our body.
Yoga also regulates breathing by conscious deep breathing. My shallow breathing during my panic attacks would have worked for me if I was a cavewoman and my life was on stake. However, for my day to day life, it doesn't provide the amount of oxygen that my body needs.
Exercise promotes the release of endorphins. Endorphins promote the mental and physical well being and relieves stress. I do 15 to 20 minutes cardio. Any vigorous workout that gets our muscles to work will help with. I personally prefer cardio, you may enjoy dancing, Zumba or Hip-hop maybe. The key is to focus on the body and don't be zoned out. Enjoy the feeling of tension and relaxation in different muscle groups. Turning the focus fully to the body while exercising doubles as a mindful practice.
Read my old post on anxiety here
Read my old post on anxiety here