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 Have you ever hydroplaned while driving along a water-covered highway or roadway? One moment you have control of your vehicle; the next moment you have no control. Your car has lost contact with the roadway and is floating, perhaps at high speed, on a layer of water. You’ve lost your anchor, and you’re probably feeling quite helpless—and scared! Wrecks result, injuries are sustained, and lives may be threatened or lost. Such frightening experiences remind us that staying anchored with the roadway is vitally important to safe travel. (Perhaps it’s time for us to check our tires since the tread may be wearing thin. A new set of tires could help us to maintain traction and thereby stay on the road—and stay alive!)

 
 
Many people “hydroplane” in life in a different way:  they experience anxiety attacks.  Let’s say that you’re traveling along the highway of life when suddenly “it” hits. Your heart starts pounding and your heart rate increases dramatically. Breathing becomes difficult as the chest feels constricted and tight. Sweat pops out over the body, perhaps alternating with chills. Your legs feel like jelly and the thought of fainting is frightening. Parts of the body begin to feel numb, and the extremities may tingle and shake. A sense of nervousness, light-headedness, and dizziness add to the misery. The stomach is filled with “butterflies” and becomes queasy and nauseated. Your mind is overcome by a sense of losing control, “going crazy,” and even dying. This horrible experience seems to last forever. You make your way to the nearest hospital for help. After the physical exam and the completion of several tests, the medical conclusion is, “Your heart if fine. What you had is a panic attack.” You’re thankful for your healthy heart, but now you have a new problem to consider. The term “panic attack” is a fitting description of the ordeal you just endured. You leave the emergency room with some short-term medication and a referral for psychotherapy.
 
 
 When we experience severe anxiety attacks (or panic attacks), we probably feel blown off course or disconnected. Numerous therapy clients with whom I’ve worked described their anxiety as “I always feel like I’m up in the air and can’t get my feet on the ground.” Like in a highway hydroplane situation, we seem to lose our anchor with life’s roadway.
 
The price tag for anxiety can be costly. Anxiety problems adversely affect our individual lives in many ways, robbing us of inner peace and filling us with dread as we worry constantly about the next attack to hit us. Because of severe anxiety job productivity is crippled, travel plans are cancelled, leisure activities are curtailed, and good intentions are compromised. Additionally, unresolved anxiety places a significant strain on human relationships and has the potential to blow the relationships off course. It’s extremely hard for a relationship to experience harmony when either partner is struggling with the absence of peace due to high levels of anxiety. Anxiety is often associated with depression, as evidenced by the frequent request from therapy clients, “I need help for my anxiety and my depression.”
 
 
Since anxiety can cause so much disruption and damage to individual and relationship health, what can we do to re-anchor ourselves to life’s roadway? In regard to anxiety attacks, we have at least two choices. First, we can struggle in anguish: “I’m coming apart.” Or, secondly, we can search for answers:  “I’m getting it together.” If you will permit me to have a vote, I would definitely recommend the second choice. Why should we continue to suffer when solutions are available? However, for us to decrease our suffering, we need to understand the nature of anxiety attacks and to develop and use effective tools for managing the attacks. Let’s explore three important steps involved in the anxiety management process.
 
 
Analyzing the Anatomy:  “What’s happening to me?”
 

First, we need to analyze the anatomy:  “What happens when I’m anxious?” If we were to take a typical panic attack apart to see how it works, what would we discover? To introduce this examination of a panic attack, pretend for a moment that you’re suddenly exposed to a serious real-life threat. You’re driving down the interstate at seventy miles per hour, feeling calm and comfortable, considering your plans for the evening. Without warning the driver in the lane next to you decides to move to your lane in front of you, narrowly missing your front bumper and causing you to hit your brakes instinctively. Your car lurches and swerves as you fight the wheel to maintain control. The car behind you honks at you for your sudden braking but, thankfully, no collision occurs. You’re back on course and you continue on your journey. Consider what just occurred within your body. In a split second your body experienced several key changes. Your heart was pounding and racing. Your breathing became shallow and irregular. Your stomach was queasy and your hands were shaky. You did not actually have a wreck, but your body experienced a significant biochemical change. Consider another situation. Imagine that an intruder attacks you in your home. You respond to this invasion by fighting back or by fleeing to safety. Either way, your body goes through a biochemical change similar to what occurred in the highway experience. That biochemical process is designed to equip you to protect yourself through nature’s fight-flight mechanism.
 
 
When a literal threat is actually present, we appreciate the body’s natural response. Your brain determines that a serious danger is present and activates the body’s alarm system. The heart is directed to beat harder and faster to pump blood to the hands and feet where it is needed. The adrenal glands are ordered to produce adrenalin (“quick energy”) and dump it into the blood stream. The breathing process changes to accommodate the threatening situation. Digestion and healing processes are slowed or stopped temporarily because a higher priority now exists. These and other biochemical processes are activated to help us survive a threat. We are extremely glad that our body works this way when we encounter threatening situations and as we respond to true attacks.
 
 
Now, suppose that somehow the brain perceives a threat to be real even though there is no actual threat present. First, your brain processes the input information (from the five senses) and concludes that a viable threat exists. Secondly, your brain pushes your alarm button. Thirdly, that action provides the activation sequence. Even though no “real” danger exists, the body goes through a biochemical process just as if a “real” danger is present. Because there is no need to fight or flee, we now have a surplus of adrenalin racing throughout our bloodstream, and our heart is pounding and racing. We experience this “activated alarm system” as an anxiety attack.  In this situation we are basically reacting to a “false alarm,” although the physical sensations are real.
 
 
How do we deal with this “false alarm” problem with “real” symptoms? Let’s consider two options. First, if we do nothing in response and simply allow the biochemical process to run its course, the whole experience will be concluded in four-to-six minutes. Our breathing returns to normal; the heart returns to its usual rhythm and rate; the adrenalin rush subsides. We might feel tired for a bit longer simply because our body just expended a significant amount of energy preparing to fight a non-existent enemy. A second option is a choice to fight or to resist this biochemical process as if it is the main enemy. We try to make it stop before it has run its natural course. What usually results? Our efforts may interfere with the body’s natural process and will probably intensify and prolong the process. For example, if I tell myself that “I’m dying!” or “I’m going crazy!” (or such similar messages), I can deceive the brain into thinking that a new threat exists and the alarm button is pushed again, resulting in another biochemical process. The whole thing starts over. If we relax and allow the body to run its course, the “new” process will return to normal in four-to-six minutes. However, if we continue to “push the alarm button,” we could have successive panic attacks which, because they follow each other so closely, may seem like one extended attack lasting for hours!   
 
 
Hopefully, this understanding of panic attacks represents good news to you. The truth is that I don’t have just one panic attack that lasts for two hours. Instead, I have twenty or thirty individual attacks all strung together because I keep activating my own alarm system. What will happen if I learn to stop pushing my alarm button? What will result if I can reduce the number of alarm activations from thirty to fifteen, or even to ten? More good news! I’ve just reduced my total suffering by 50-70%. With knowledge and practice I can learn to recognize the initial attack for what it is (“this is just a panic attack”), allow the biochemical process to run its natural course without interference, and refuse to “push the alarm button” again which would simply re-activate the chemical system. As I apply my knowledge of the anatomy of a panic attack, I prevent the multiple re-activations of the body’s natural alarm system. I’m learning the skill of anxiety management.
 
 
You’re considering this information but you still have concerns. “Okay, there’s some good news. But how do I let this alarm system run its course? All I want to do is to fight it and make it stop.” Since each person experiences a panic attack in an individualized manner, there is no one answer that fits every situation perfectly. However, there are some tools that benefit almost everyone, especially when the techniques are modified to fit the individual and practiced to equip the person for action. The best way to learn and develop these skills is to get into some good Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a licensed mental health professional. In addition, you could study some resource books that provide excellent information and encouragement. (For assistance in locating a therapist, see the Therapy section of this website; for information about helpful books, see the Resources/Mental Health section of the website.)
 
 
Applying the Answers:  “How do I survive?”
 
“How do I survive a panic attack?” Good question! Let’s consider an overview of a plan of action which can help us to apply the answers and manage an anxiety or panic attack when it occurs. First, you will need to develop a clear and accurate understanding of what actually happens during a panic attack so that the basic fear can be decreased. Secondly, you will need to write out a message that you will repeat to yourself during the panic attack, and you will practice that message daily until it is fully integrated into your memory. Thirdly, you will learn and develop some deep breathing techniques which you will use during the episode. Fourthly, you will consider talking to your physician about the use of medication to help you with your panic attacks. Many people value having medication available to them; other people prefer not to use it. Regarding medication, please keep in mind that a pill may provide some temporary relief, but other tools are needed if you’re going to be successful in long-term anxiety management. It is not wise to be solely dependent upon medication for something as difficult as panic attacks.
 
 
You may be wondering about the message we use during a panic attack to talk ourselves through the ordeal. When the symptoms start, we make a quick assessment of our surroundings to determine whether or not a viable threat is present. If a threat is present, we “fight or flee” for personal survival and safety, depending upon the nature of the threat. If there is no threat, we conclude that what we’re having is a panic attack. We start reassuring ourselves about our safety with the message we’ve memorized. “There is no real danger. This is just a panic attack. I’ve had them before, and I will be fine. My alarm system has been activated, but it’s a false alarm. I will relax and allow the process to run its course. I’ll use my tools and I’ll get through this in a few minutes.” We repeat this basic message to reassure ourselves that we will be okay.
 
 
As we’re repeating this message to ourselves, we may choose to take our anxiety medication, if something has been prescribed by our physician. If we’re standing, we may choose to sit down so we’ll be more comfortable. If we’re driving a vehicle, we may want to leave the roadway and get to a safe spot where we can stop the car and work through the panic attack. If we’re in a public place, we could go to a restroom or other private place for a few minutes where we can use our coping skills effectively.
 
 
At the beginning of a panic attack our breathing is probably fast and shallow, causing a lack of oxygen in the brain. As a result, we start feeling light-headed and perhaps dizzy, even a bit nauseated. Our goal is to return our breathing to normal as soon as possible. We exhale the air in our lungs as much as possible, breathing out through our mouth. Then we inhale through our nose as slowly as possible, filling the lungs with air. When the lungs are filled, we pause for a moment and then start exhaling slowly through the mouth. Each breath gets longer and more extended, thus slowing down and deepening the breathing process. As oxygen levels are restored to a more normal level, the brain becomes convinced that “all is well” and initiates the “shut down” sequence for the alarm system’s biochemical process. As we continue this slowed-down breathing pattern, we continue to talk our way through the attack and reassure ourselves that we are okay and we will be fine.
 
 
Some people respond, “But I don’t know how to breathe and relax this way.” If you don’t already have these skills, it’s time to learn them. You can purchase a relaxation CD at your local bookstore.  Or, you could check out my relaxation skills program on this website. The program is called “Your Relaxation Journey” and can be located in the Resources/Audio Travel Guides section, and it is described at the end of this blog. You can listen to the free program online, and you can also download the audio file to your personal computer. It is vitally important to practice these relaxation skills frequently, perhaps daily, so that they are “second-nature” to you and can be brought into action immediately and effectively when the need arises.
 
 
In summary, we’re using a combination of three tools to help us work through the panic attack. After making the initial assessment and concluding that we’re having a “false alarm,” we use self-talk, relaxation, and medication to allow and encourage the activated alarm system to run its course. As we increase the effective use of these tools, we begin to decrease the frequency, intensity, and duration of the panic attacks. We may never get rid of every one of the attacks, but we do learn to manage them successfully. As a result, we do not fear the prospect of having another attack, and we are able to move forward in our lives with greater confidence and peace.
 
In Part One of “Anchors for Anxiety” we analyzed the anatomy of anxiety attacks so that we will have a better understanding of the biochemical changes that occur within us when we experience severe anxiety. We also introduced several important tools which are essential to the effective survival of panic attacks. Hopefully, our increased understanding and our improved tools will result in decreased suffering when we experience future anxiety attacks. In Part Two of “Anchors for Anxiety” we will explore several ideas and tools which can help us prevent the occurrence of future attacks. (Part II is scheduled for publishing on August 13, 2010.)
 
 
As you continue to search for solutions in regard to your anxiety management, I want to wish you the very best in all of your individual and relationship journeys.  
 
                                                                                               (Mental Health Blog #1302)
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AnxietyManagementTV

 

 

VIDEO:  To watch a television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Managing Our Anxiety" please click on the image to the right or click here.

 

 

 


Earlier Dr. Baker's relaxation program was mentioned as a good resource for you. The information about that program is given below.

“Your Relaxation Journey” (Part I: 12 Minutes; Part II: 14 Minutes) - (Speaker: Dr. Bill Baker)

Unresolved tension often becomes a major roadblock in our personal and relationship journey through life.  Therefore, it is critically important that we develop and use a workable roadmap for managing our tension. That roadmap is both preventive and reactive in its function. First, to the extent that we can, we try to prevent the build-up of tension. However, some tension will probably develop in spite of our preventive strategies. Secondly, we also learn to react effectively by reducing tension as it develops so it does not escalate to a danger-zone level.

 This audio program provided by Dr. Baker focuses primarily on the second function:  to reduce our current tension by learning and using a personal relaxation process. Part I (the Introduction) deals with several important introductory matters. Part II contains the actual relaxation process. The listener is strongly encouraged to listen to Part I before attempting the relaxation activities described in Part II.
 

 Part I

 


 

 

Part II

 

 

 



(To listen to an audio version of this blog entry, click the Play Button below.)

 

 

 
 

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