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.
Have you ever felt like you are trying to let a partner, friend, colleague or other person in your life know you are there for them but somehow they end up shutting down or getting more upset?
When you see someone (especially someone close to you) suffering, it often brings up hard feelings. Our go-to is often to give advice or problem solve. This is not necessarily the most effective way to let them know you are there for them and ultimately help them feel better. Instead, they more likely need someone to just be there with them, listen and validate their feelings. This in turn, allows the person to feel heard and understood so that they are able to calm down and figure out how to problem solve on their own if needed.
Here’s an example that we can all relate to. Imagine that your boss tells you that you need to get an assignment to her by the end of the day. Of course, you mean to get to it, but a million things come up during your day and you’re not able to get the assignment done. As you are leaving for the day tired and stressed, your boss asks you where the report is. You try to tell them that other urgent matters came up, and that you will do it first thing tomorrow morning. They tell you to stop with the excuses and that it was irresponsible not to get it done, with your colleagues within ear shot. You leave not only feeling bad about yourself but mortified that you were called out in front of your colleagues. You call a friend on your walk home from work hoping for some support.
Here are a few examples of the ways they could respond. Imagine your response to these different responses.
- Advice: “you know what you should do? Tomorrow, you should march into the office and explain to your boss…” “and then you should get it done and…”
- Denial of feelings: “It doesn’t matter what your boss thinks, you know you had good reasons. It’s not worth being so upset!”
- Questions: “What exactly were those other things that came up? “Didn’t you know it was important?” “Didn’t you know your boss would react this way if you didn’t get it done?”
- Defense of the other person: “She probably didn’t mean it that way. She probably has a lot on her plate and just had a stressful day herself…”
- A validating response (an attempt at tuning into your feelings): “Man, that sounds awful. All that work that you had to get done. And then to confront you like that in front of your colleagues!”
(Faber and Mazlish, 2012)
How did you react to those responses? I know when I’m upset and I just want someone to listen, the first 4 types of responses make me feel worse or not want to share to all. I just need someone to listen and tell me that they can hear why I am so upset, frustrated or angry, like in the final validating response.
Here is a step-by-step guide to supporting someone when they are distressed, going through something, or feeling frustrated, angry or sad.
- Attend to the other’s feelings. What is the other person feeling right now?
- Validate the other’s experience. Put your feet in the other’s shoes. Accept and allow them to feel the way they feel. “It makes sense that you’d feel x”… Change BUT to BECAUSE. “Of course, you’re angry BECAUSE you’ve been working so hard and you’re not feeling appreciated by your boss…”
- Meet their Need. Do they just need to vent? Do they need your full attention? A hug? An “I’m here for you?” A distraction or a kind gesture? If they want your advice or help with problem solving, they’ll ask!
Try this out in your relationships. A little validation can go a long way!
Faber, A. and Mazlish, E. (2012). How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. New York, New York.
Several years ago, I received a speeding ticket while rushing to get to my regular yoga class. The class was important to me as it was part of my self-care regimen.
The combination of poor planning plus an inability to accept that I just wasn’t going to make it to class that day brought me to an important realization: self-care, or at least a hyper-focus on a self-care routine, can sometimes become counter-productive.
How Important Is Self-Care?
Self-care is essential for reducing stress and all its associated problems, both physical and mental.
That said, not everyone understands what it really is and many people aren’t sure what to do.
Here are a few places to start:
Dr. Kristen Neff offers some great advice in her book, Self Compassion. Her TED talks are also helpful. Guy Winch’s, Emotional First Aid, is another book that I recommend as well as his TED talks. For some further reading, I recommend this piece on self-care in the digital age and this list of self-care ideas.
Creating your own self-care regimen will help you to develop and maintain positive mental health and wellness.
You’ve Got This!
Self-care for ourselves or others can be deliberate and planned, but often we’ve already built some self-care into our daily routines. Going to the movies, talking to a close friend, or taking time to read a book can all be acts of self-care.
Self-Care vs. Self-Sabotage
Sometimes, we find ourselves avoiding discomfort by hiding under the guise of self-care. It can often prevent us from showing up, growing up, and increasing our self-efficacy and self-esteem. For example, is it self-care or avoidance if you take a break from study during finals? It’s a trick question, really, because it could be both.
On one hand, a break will give you some much-needed respite so that you can regroup and come back to your study with fresh eyes. On the other hand, too many breaks or breaks that last too long can be procrastination. It’s important to remember that avoidance keeps you stuck and prevents you from connecting to your feelings.
Ask Yourself: Is This Self-Care or Avoidance?
If the activity feels nourishing, helps you grow, and moves you forward towards your goal, it is self-care. If it takes you away from your goal, then it’s avoidance. Using techniques such as mindfulness can help you to acknowledge your feelings, and understand rather than avoid them.
Make 2019 the year you fine-tune your self-care routine (and avoid nasty surprises like speeding tickets).