During 2022 I made it my mission to read as many self-help/self-improvement/wellness books as I could and to gather the best advice from these that I could use in my everyday life to improve my mental health and general wellbeing. The problem is, from reading so many books, I came across so much conflicting advice, or just too much advice in general – leaving me slightly overwhelmed and unsure what was best for me.
Some books told me to ‘Go easy on myself’, others told me I need to be ‘harder on myself’ and ‘be more disciplined’, one book told me to ‘wake up at 5am and get all my tasks done in 1 hour’, others told me to ‘wake up naturally and have a slow morning’.
This is why I have decided to start a small series of mental health/self improvement posts focused on the most useful advice I have come across while reading all these books. But each post will focus on one problem at a time, which should hopefully stop you feeling too overwhelmed. In this post I want to focus on immediate responses to feelings of anxiety and panic.
Our bodies naturally have a flight or fight reaction to situations we recognise as dangerous. But fight or flight can be triggered even when there isn’t any immediate danger i.e. if we are in a stressful situation, have been under a lot of pressure or have been having intrusive thoughts. This can lead to a number of different reactions, the main ones including shortness of breath and an increased heart rate.
This kind of anxiety/panic is harder to get away from, because there is no technical “danger” to escape. But there are steps you can take to mentally remove yourself from the “danger” or stress you are feeling.
Keep reading to discover 3 different methods I have tried over the last year and have found to be the most helpful in terms of responding to anxiety. These methods work mainly by reducing heart-rate and calming the breath, allowing your brain a chance to catch-up and realise you are not in immediate danger.
1. Get Moving
When your fight or flight/anxiety response is triggered, your muscles fill up with adrenaline, which prepares your body for danger to potentially help you get away quickly. This adrenaline needs an outlet, basically, you need to move. Ideally it is recommended that 30 minutes of moderate activity will help to reduce anxiety symptoms.
The problem with this is not everyone can just jump up and go for a run or start working out for 30 minutes, it may be late, you may be busy or there could be any number of reasons why this just isn’t possible.
However, even just shifting positions can be enough to help combat these feelings, if you are sitting down, jump up and go somewhere else in the house, start tidying up, play with your kids or pets, phone a family member or friend and walk around while you’re on the phone. That way you are moving and keeping your mind occupied on something else. Physically moving your body helps to shift what your mind is focused on.
Note: Although this post is focused on reactive responses to anxiety, I just wanted to highlight that exercise is one of the best preventative tools for managing anxiety as well. People who suffer from anxiety can massively benefit from 30 minutes of moderate activity a day.
2. Have a Self-Soothe box on hand
This is one of my absolutely favourite pieces of advice!
A Self-Soothe box is essentially a box you fill up with items designed to bring comfort and relaxion to you. I would recommend you have items relations to all 5 senses, as this has been shown to ground you in moments of panic. You may have heard of the 5 senses grounding technique, where you acknowledge things you can see, touch, smell, taste and hear around you.
So for example: Your items for senses could be:
- Taste: Chocolate bar, or herbal teabag
- See: A photo of a loved one or a happy memory
- Smell: A candle or some aromatherapy oils/balms
- Hear: A list of songs you find relaxing.
- Touch: A stress ball
Self-soothe boxes should be completely personal to you, everyone is different and everyone finds different things relaxing, you may even want to switch things out if you find they don’t help.
As mentioned before, a symptom of anxiety or panic is rapid breathing, during a panic or anxiety attack, people often over-breathe or hyperventilate – this can often to leas to more fear and worry, and therefore more anxiety! It’s been shown that by controlling your breath or mimicking a relaxed breathing pattern, you can calm your mind and body by relaxing your nervous system and reducing your heart rate.
There are multiple different breathing exercises you can try but my favourite is the 4-7-8 technique.
Steps for the 4-7-8 technique
- Inhale for 4 seconds
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds
- Exhale for 8 seconds
- Try to repeat for at least 3-4 cycles, or as long as needed
I myself try to practice 4-7-8 at least once a day in the morning, and will try to do it again later in the afternoon or evening. The best part of breathing exercises is you can do it anywhere and will go (mostly) unnoticed.
I use a really simple (and free!) app called 4-7-8 Relax Breathing. There is nothing more to the app, 4-7-8 is it’s only functionality and that’s perfect for someone like me who is easily distracted or often overwhelmed with too much choice. I would also recommend reading the book Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor for more information on the benefits of breathwork.
Note: Like exercise, this is also a great preventative measure. By practicing 4-7-8 twice daily, it becomes more effective in helping you to manage stress levels.
- Exercise can burn off the excess adrenaline panic and anxiety creates, and moving around helps to shift your minds focus.
- Having items that engage your senses and mind are great to have on hand, these will help to ground you in moments of panic.
- Breathing exercises help to reduce your heart rate and breathing, calming your nervous system.
I just want to reiterate that these tips are all ways to react to the symptoms of anxiety and panic and can help with general anxiety, but ultimately won’t help treat the root cause of the anxiety, or any kind of mental health disorder, for that I would strongly recommend speaking to a professional (wherever possible, therapy is often unavailable or too expensive for most).
I hope you have found this post helpful, and would love to know if you have any experience with any of these methods, or if you start giving them a try.