Anxiety is a friend of mine. It’s taken me some years, but now I know some ways of backing her off, calming her down and gaining control of my body. It has taken many years and many lessons and just when I think I have taken control back, she comes again. I now understand that anxiety is a protective mechanism the body calls on when it senses danger. It is instinctive and an ancient part of our biology. It comes from a small part in the brain called the amygdala and there is nothing you can do to stop it from happening. You can, however, calm it down by breathing and some self talk.
Recently the whole fight or flight theory gained another friend. The freeze. So now it is understood that the reaction our body goes into is either:
3. or Freeze
A few years ago, I was taking the washing off the line when I saw a black snake. My daughter was jumping on the trampoline behind me, with the snake in between us. I had to say to her in a calm voice, when I was really not feeling very calm at all, “Darling there is a snake on the ground, don’t move”. She looked at me and I looked at her and I was frozen. I couldn’t get to her to rescue her and I could not move. She went into flight mode and jumped off the other side of the tramp and exited safely by the pool fence. I just watched her and the snake, paralysed. When I realised she was safe and the snake had slithered away, I noticed it wasn’t really black at all and maybe more a dark green, I could go back inside. I noticed that even though I often felt in the words of Bruno Mars I would jump in front of a train for ya (her). I couldn’t even rustle up the sensibility to throw a clothes peg. That’s the amygdala, freezing me, keeping me safe.
Sometimes on my drive home in the afternoons I have to stop in the middle of our street for a big water dragon. He will often be ambling halfway across our narrow road when I tear around the corner, safely wrapped in a car, so I’m not scared of him. But he freezes. A massive lizard, doing the old “I’m closing my eyes, I can’t see you, so you can’t see me, let’s pretend I’m not really here.” I usually have to wait until he lumbers off, sometimes I’ve had to get out of the car and shoo him across the road. The amygdala is an animal instinct. We are the same, they also fight, take flight or freeze. Nothing to see here…
When we get anxious the body takes over in order to prepare us for the fight, flight or freeze response. When we are in a situation where we are frightened, our brain instinctively steps up to protect us. So a number of things happen, which are out of our control.
The thing with anxiety is, because it is a natural response by the body when it senses danger, we can often make things feel more scary in our heads, when we catastrophise and over-think or imagine the worst is going to happen.
The first time I ran the City to Surf, I was a jumble of nerves. I was with my best friend who was fitter than me and I was worried I couldn’t make the distance. We had trained together for it, with scenic lunch-time jogs around the Domain, but at my best I had only ever run about 5ks. The race from the City to Bondi Beach is 14ks. At the starting point where everyone was assembling, I watched the lean Lycra clad bodies with their heart monitors strapped on and started to panic. The terror began in my head. “I’m a fraud. I can’t run this.” I watched people jogging on the spot and stretching out their hammies. “I’m not fit enough; I should join the walkers and the guy in the gorilla suit.” “Who am I kidding?” Then it hit me in the stomach. “I need to wee!” I squealed. I found the closest porta-loo, then when the stench hit me, I changed my mind. I think in my panic, I just made myself want to wee.
My friend was checking out the men and nudged me. “Phwoah, look at that!” I was frozen to the spot, looking at the ground, hunched over, “I think I’m going to vomit” I whispered. My face felt cold and all the blood had rushed to my arms and legs. “You are not going to vomit” she said, grabbing me in a side hug. “We are doing this, I will stay with you.” We did it, she stayed with me for the most part, then I let her go, at one stage the man in the gorilla suit overtook me. The adrenalin in my body and the cheering of the crowd got me over the line. The panic and anxiety actually helped by urging on my muscles and the crowd cheering got me mentally psyched up. In that instance when I did take flight, anxiety was actually helping me out.
If you don’t flee or fight, the feelings of nausea, panic and fear stay with you. When you feel anxiety because you are facing a new situation like going to a job interview or a new workplace, or you might be a teenager starting a new school, if you don’t end up fleeing, all the adrenalin, heart racing, sick vomity feelings get stuck inside you, until the brain knows you are in a good place. A way to stop anxiety in its tracks is, and it sounds way too easy but it works, is to breathe. This sends a message to your body that you are safe.
Breathing tells your nervous system that you are OK, you are not going to run or punch the fellow interviewing you, or freeze beside the locker at your new school, pretending you are not there. Deep belly breathing brings the oxygen back to your digestive system, wakes up the parasympathetic nervous system, changes the balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen and calms you down.
Sometimes we can talk ourselves into a panic. Sometimes we tell ourselves weird things like “ oh my god I am going to die” which is slightly over exaggerated and unhelpful or “ I don’t know if I am going to vomit or poo my pants, God, maybe both of these things will happen.” This is when I start to soothe myself by telling myself things like “OK, this job interview or new workplace or new school is pretty scary, but I don’t think I will die.” Or “Right, I need to do a nervous wee, so I will just find the closest bathroom and stay in there a bit longer than I need to, to breathe and calm down.” “I am going to be fine, this is all OK, I can do this.” Gulp, breathe, wipe off the sweat from brow. ” I am the brave person.”
Sometimes if I can’t talk myself out of it, I imagine my friend talking to me she says things like “You are not going to vomit” and laughs at me. She also says “You can do this, you are great.” In times of panic, I often call on her, she can be very helpful because I am forever making up stories in my head. “They will never give me this job, if I wet my pants in the interview.” Because the stories I make up in my head, really never happen and are only just stories, if they did happen, I am TOTALLY prepared for that, but they rarely do.
So breathe deep belly breaths. Talk yourself down out of the panic area, or call on a friend or loved one in your mind to help “You can do this, you are brave and courageous and you probably won’t vomit.”
Rachel Wilkinson is a counsellor and massage therapist at Step into Health, Mansfield, Brisbane. She has been for several job interviews and hasn’t vomited in any. She suffers from anxiety in scary situations like around snakes, large crowds and new situations. She is currently putting together a workshop designed for parents and children to be brave in situations that can be quite terrifying. It will be a small workshop, because big ones are a little confronting.