Anxiety and Panic: Two words that usually evoke a physical and emotional response that we feel like we can’t control, and the harder we try to control it, the more out of control we feel. What if someone told you that your anxiety or anxious feelings were “normal” and even good? What if someone told you that panic is also a “normal” and even a helpful physical response? When you encounter a threat, your nervous system springs into action. Adrenaline comes rushing into your bloodstream signaling your body to be on high alert. In that same moment, your heartbeat speeds up which also sends more blood to your muscles, and your blood sugar level spikes while your senses become immediately intensified. Your breathing accelerates as you attempt to take in more oxygen, but it remains difficult because your breathing is also shallow. In a literal instant your body gives you both the energy and sharp focus needed to react to a dangerous situation. However, what if you are not in a dangerous situation but have that same somatic experience?
With anxiety or a panic attack your body has a similar physical experience as if you are in real danger. In the same way that you aren’t cueing your body or intentionally deciding on that helpful biological reaction in a dangerous situation, it is also true that you are not purposely cueing or creating a biological experience with anxiety or panic. That is often why anxiety and panic can feel very scary. Your brain perceives danger and your body responds accordingly. So it goes with anxiety or panic. The problem is, even when there is no immediate threat or danger, our body is reacting with symptomology as though there is something to provoke this physical response either minor or major. That same adrenaline rush and keen focus that is otherwise helpful in a dangerous situation, can be extremely frustrating, or downright terrifying with panic or anxiety. Anxiety is terrifying because you don’t have a threat to direct that focus of attention and adrenaline rush towards, as in a needed fight or flight reaction. Often times, people struggling with an anxiety disorder of some kind feel this heightened somatic response most days and cannot remember the last time they felt relaxed. Anxiety disorders (which include a variety, including social anxiety and panic disorders) “are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting around 40 million adults- almost 1 in 5 people. Globally, the World Health Organization say that almost 300 million people have an anxiety disorder” (Newman, 2018).
Most people who come into my office for anxiety or panic have usually struggled for years, but by the time they see me it has reached a point that they can no longer ignore or control and it is affecting their daily life. In both my personal and professional experience, attempting to ignore anxiety, get rid of anxiety, or talk themselves out of anxiety is actually a huge part of the problem. Do we think we could stop our brain and body from physically reacting to a bear attack with all of the same somatic cues and responses? No. We understand that idea is unreasonable, because we can’t control or stop our brain’s reaction to a dangerous situation. Anxiety is cueing the same way, yet we spend time and energy trying to stop that response or ignore what our brain and body are saying. There are a few reasons for this. Often times people still see anxiety and panic as a character flaw instead of a brain/body reaction. As Christians there are verses in Philippians that tell us to be “anxious for nothing”(4:6), and so we think we are being disobedient or are have an inferior faith when anxious feelings overwhelm our senses. Even if we don’t see anxiety as a character flaw, we might see it as an irrational nuisance that is embarrassing because we feel or seem out of control. In addition, we often tell ourselves, or have well-meaning friends and family who might suggest, that we are fine and should just tell ourselves that we are “fine.” Others might suggest that we ground ourselves in an effort to prove to ourselves that “we are ok.” We are given advice on how to calm down and often given messages that are meant to convince ourselves that everything is ok, further making one feel even more out of control because our bodies are communicating anything but “fine” or “ok.” Would we tell a friend who is being attacked by a mugger or was just in a car accident that their fear or physical feelings in response to the incident are not real and that they need to calm down because they are being irrational? Or instead, do we listen and affirm how and why what they experienced was terrifying and that it makes sense why they are still feeling overwhelmed and scared- even if they are in fact no longer in danger. If we are sensitive friends when we listen, we sit with them, we hear about their experience and we affirm how their reaction to it makes sense. We are compassionate, understanding, patient, calm and we often will affirm their feelings. What would happen if we sat and listened to our bodies with the same care and compassion that we would a friend? What would it look like with anxiety or panic to accept the reality that our body is saying that we aren’t fine?
What I’m referring to is something that I have come to know in my life and practice as radical acceptance to the felt somatic experience. Instead of saying, “I’m ok” when our body is telling us we aren’t ok, what if, instead, we said, “I’m not ok” and I need to listen to what my body is saying. What if we sat with and felt our anxiety and listened to our body the same way we would a friend who was struggling with anxiety. With a friend, we might ask questions. We might affirm the feelings. We might even tell them that their experience or reaction “makes sense because…” What if, the next time you felt anxiety, you stopped to listen to all the feelings in your physical body and just stopped and accepted it and told yourself all the reasons “it makes sense” that you are feeling anxious rather than all the reasons why you are fine? Maybe you would say that it makes sense you are feeling anxious because “you are having a rough day,” or you “just lost a job,” or you “didn’t get much sleep the night before” or you, “are worried about…,” or whatever reason might make sense as to why you are feeling the anxious or panicked feelings. What if, like a good friend, we sat and listened to what our bodies were telling us and then took time to feel it, both the emotional feelings, and also the physical feelings; feelings like scared, overwhelmed, and stressed, or feelings like tight chest, pounding heart, rushing adrenaline? It sounds scary because it is. So many are used to ignoring uncomfortable and anxious feelings. It actually sounds absolutely terrifying for many. Yes, indeed it is a scary prospect because many believe that if they stop and feel their physical and emotional feelings surrounding panic and anxiety that it will become completely out of control and it doesn’t even feel safe. It is true that it is scary, but in my experience it is also true that it is necessary.
Accepting my anxiety and feeling the feelings on purpose was key in both my own personal battle with anxiety and panic, but it is also key in producing change in many of my clients. During anxiety or panic, I rarely suggest breathing exercises as it often will induce more anxiety. Depending on the person and the severity of the somatic experience, I will usually encourage people that the moment they notice anxious feelings just to stop and notice. Stop and feel it. Stop and listen and if they can, really lean into what they are physically feeling and experiencing and then describe it- out loud if possible. Often times it helps to encourage a body scan so they can start listening from the top of their head to the bottom of their feet. A body scan sounds and initially feels scary during an anxiety or panic episode, but it is in my opinion and experience exactly what your body, heart and soul need. I encourage clients to name out loud if they are able (or silently if surrounded by others) all of the physical feelings that they are feeling; tight chest, racing pulse, nausea, etc. After they sit with and feel the scary and physical feelings, I encourage them to tell themselves all the reasons why it makes sense that they are feeling anxious (aka, why they are not fine) rather than why they are fine, because in that moment they are not. Usually the list is long, but not always. It is only after those two key steps that I will encourage other grounding techniques or use other interventions to address anxiety from a psychotherapeutic approach. Until we start accepting what our bodies are communicating with us and begin to feel our feelings on purpose, we skip the two most important steps in actually slowing down or stopping anxiety. For many, practicing radical acceptance, listening, and feeling can open the door to healing and change. It is only after this point that we address the underlying causes of anxiety and deal with the root causes of anxiety. However, for many clients simply understanding that their body is acting “normal” and teaching them how to listen to and accept their physical and emotional feelings are enough for change to begin.
The Bible encourages us to not “fear,” “worry,” or “be anxious” about 365 times, enough to cover every day of the year. That kind of repetition serves as a strong reminder of the reality of our natural inclination and tendency to fear, worry, or be anxious. The struggle is real. If you are struggling with anxiety, start with listening to your body and feeling your emotional and somatic experience. God says to “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps.46:10), but what are we doing in those still, and sometimes not so quiet, moments? It is when we begin to listen to our bodies that God gave us that we can begin to heal. If you think you might be struggling with moderate to severe anxiety that is affecting your day to day life, don’t be afraid to reach out to a counselor or therapist for help. After listening to our bodies and what they are telling us, coping strategies and various therapeutic exercises and psychotherapeutic interventions can often be the helpful next step.
There is hope and help! You don’t have to continue to suffer alone.
Newman, T. (2018, September 5). Is anxiety increasing in the United States? Retrieved October 1, 2019
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