Have you been in class and started to notice your heart rate beating faster? Your palms start to get sweaty and you begin feeling dizzy. You’re grasping for air and it feels like you can’t move or breath. You feel like you’re going to pass out and try to figure out what’s going on. You might think you’re having a heart attack and call 911.
Panic attacks are quite common. Did you know that 1 million Canadians experience panic attacks each year? Thus, if you can relate, you’re definitely not alone! Ever wonder why our bodies are reacting in such a way? Let’s break it down.
As human beings we all experience different degrees of stress at times, however we have a limit on the amount of stress each of us can handle. In psychology, we often use the term “somatization” to refer to the body-mind connection. Metaphorically, we can think of it like a kettle. When we think about stress we can think of it as though it is water we are pouring into the kettle. This could be any form of stress including psychological stress (repressed emotions/thoughts), stress from transitions/moving, stress from the demands of our work, relationship stress, responsibilities of being a parent etc. Some of us might have smaller kettle, middle size kettles or larger kettles. These kettles represent something we call our “distress tolerance”. Thus, some of us can handle more stress than other (having larger kettle), however again we all have our limits. When our kettles are filled with water, it begins to pore over, leading our bodies to send the message that we can’t handle anymore stress. This can take the form of a panic attack. Alternative ways our bodies can send this message if through the development of somatic symptoms (i.e. getting headaches, stomach aches, pain in our body), or perhaps we might snap more easily at our friend or partner.
An example to illustrate the body-mind connection and how it functions would be the following: let’s say you’re at work and have a headache. We’re working on a project and all of sudden your boss comes over and says, “by the way that project is due tomorrow morning”. Typically, what’s going to happen is that pre-existing headache will amplify. Essentially, we just poured a bunch of water into the kettle and now that pre-existing somatic symptom (our headache) will enlarge. Now let’s say we have a friend who’s our co-worker near by and he turns over and says “why would he ask you to do that, that’s just not feasible to get that done so fast; you must be so stressed and anxious”. Essentially, we have a friend providing us emotional support and giving us validation on our experience. We can turn to this co-worker and externalize what we’re feeling, perhaps restating how anxious and stress we are. Typically what will happen is that headache that amplified will mitigate after speaking with our co-worker.
This example illustrates the function of our body-mind connection. Stress can amplify pre-existing symptoms or create symptoms all together including the development of a panic attack.
In order to pour out some of the water from the kettle when it is getting full, here are some practical strategies to help mitigate stress:
1) Call a Friend or Family Member: By talking with a family member or friend we can externalize how we’re feeling and get emotional support. Referring to the example above, this can be a great way to pour out some water after feeling validated.
2) Journal: We can write down what we’re feeling as another way to externalize our emotions.
3) Name Our Emotions Out Loud: We can say out loud what emotions we are feeling to ourselves as another way to externalize them.
4) Do Self-Care Activities: We could go running or do a physical activity.
5) Sensory-Motor Psychotherapy: If we go to the gym and take a medicine ball, we can picture within this ball all of our stress/anxiety or other emotions we might be feeling. Then we can throw the ball down as hard as we can as a way to externalize our feelings by releasing/throwing them away.
6) Use a Stress Ball Similar to the example above, we can take a stress ball and picture all of our emotions inside of it and squeeze it as though we are mitigating our emotions.
7) Art: We can draw, paint, sculpture or do any form of art to express our emotions and what we are feeling
8) Music and Dance: We can also use music and dance as other forms of expression.
Do you feel overwhelmed juggling school, work and personal life? Perhaps you’re in class and instead of listening, you’re thinking about all the tasks you need to get done for the day including finishing your assignment, studying for your exam, doing laundry, going grocery shopping or squeezing in time to talk to a friend. Do you ever have racing thoughts about how you’re going to get everything done? Think that it’s impossible to finish everything? You may stop paying attention in class, feel your heart beating faster and your palms getting sweaty. It can feel as though your world is closing in.
If you can relate to feeling stressed out about all the demands of life, you’re not alone!
Living in an up-pace society, we are often placed with multiple demands, which can easily make us feel overwhelmed. In turn, this can make it more difficult to be able to focus and concentrate, making getting everything we need to get done for the day that much harder.
Our minds are often racing between thinking about the past or the future. We rarely stop to be present in the moment. If we can begin to learn to center ourselves back to the here and now, we can reduce anxiety and increase concentration by putting the breaks on in our brain.
Here are 10 some simple, easy grounding techniques, which can help to reduce anxiety when we notice it creeping up.
- 5-4-3-2-1: Look around the room and name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
- Box breathing: Picture a box in front of you. As you move up the side of the box, take a deep breath in for 4 seconds. Next as you move along the top of the box, hold your breath for 4 seconds. Then as you move down the other side of the box, breath out for 4 seconds, and finally as you run along the bottom of the box hold for 4 seconds. Repeat.
- Mindful eating: Take a raisin or other piece of food. Examine it. What does it look like? How does it smell? How does it feel? Slowly begin to chew it. How does it taste?
- Counting backward: You can do this several ways, my personal favourite is to count backwards by 7 starting from 100.
- Ice cube technique: Take an ice cube and move it along your arm. Notice the temperature, if it melts, how it feels, and what it looks like- again, tap into your 5 senses.
- Teddy bear technique (for children): Lie on your back and place a teddy bear on your belly. As you take deep breaths in and out, watch the teddy bear move up and down with each inhale and exhale.
- Progressive muscle relaxation: Start with your right hand in a relaxed state. Slowly begin to clench your hand. Notice the tension as you begin to do this, as you transition your hand from a relaxed state into a fist. Next, slowly begin unclenching your hand back into a relaxed state, again noticing the difference in tension. Repeat these steps with your left hand and then move along to other body parts such as your foot or leg.
- Naming colors: Name everything in the room that is blue. Now name everything in the room that is red. Now everything in the room that is yellow, etc.
- Mindful walking: As you walk, notice the weight of each foot on the ground and how your weight changes as you take each step. If you are outside, notice if it is sunny, hot, cold or rainy. If it’s sunny, notice how the sun feels on your skin. Notice if you can hear cars passing or birds chirping.
- Monitoring your heartbeat: Place your fingertips together from both of your hands. Notice your pulse in your fingertips and pay attention to the rhythm of your heartbeat.
What is cognitive behavioural therapy, anyway?
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) looks at the correlation between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
If we have a negative thought, it can then stimulate negative feelings, which in turn can stimulate a particular reaction. If we change our thinking patterns, we can in turn change how we feel and react. The first step is to notice negative thinking patterns (“cognitive distortions”) when they arise. From there, we can ask ourselves the question, is this thought a fact or a belief?
We often treat beliefs as facts, for example, the thought that no one will like us at the party, stimulating the reaction of not wanting to go. However, do we know with certainty that no one will like us at the party? If our thought is a fact then it can’t be changed since it’s 100% true, however if we can say our thought is a belief, then we can search for evidence for or against that thought in order to reconsolidate the thought into a more balance thought.
How long does it take before I begin to notice changes in my thinking patterns?
Each time a core belief gets activated, for example the thought of not being good enough, connections in our brain get strengthened.
As neuroscientists put it, “What fires together wires together.” So if we think a certain way for a long time, it is likely those connections in our brains have become hardwired.
Essentially, what we’re doing in psychotherapy is creating new connections in our brains. Then every time we notice a negative thinking pattern, when we challenge those thoughts we are paving the way to create new neurological pathways.
That being said, paving the way for new pathways in our brains takes time. Since old ways of thinking have been strengthened and hardwired, as we begin to create new connections, those connections are initially weak. If we think about playing a guitar, psychotherapy works in a similar fashion. When we first begin to learn the guitar, we need to spend time and effort placing our fingers on the cords. Over time, we become faster and faster at placing our fingers, since we get familiarized with where the cords are located. If we keep practicing, in time we no longer need to look at where to place our fingers. As they say, “What you practice grows stronger.”
In other words, we are strengthening those pathways in our brain, making them more automatic as we develop this skill. In the same way, as we learn different ways of thinking, we are strengthening those neurological connections every time they are activated and in turn weakening old connections the less they are utilized.
Can you still learn new ways of thinking as you age?
When it comes to learning new things, through neuroplasticity, children’s brains are seen to be the most able to change. We are all born with a surplus of neurons, thus depending on which pathways and connections we utilize, other neurons die off through the process called pruning. Thus, it can be easier for children to pave new pathways in their brains. That being said, throughout our lifespan, we regenerate new neurons through a process called neurogenesis.
The bottom line is that no matter what age we are, we can always learn new things and change our thinking patterns.