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Anyone who is wrestling with anxiety and depression wants nothing more than to NOT be anxious. One of the notorious moments in our battle with anxiety is when we first have a serious anxiety episode, and we begin to learn to fear those Flight or Fight Responses that scare us.

The term I learned in the anxiety literature about this being afraid of those symptoms (or any exposure to anxious thinking) is anticipatory anxiety. That’s a great descriptor.

But I want to talk in this post about the particular thing we do with our Flight or Fight (physical or emotional) responses – that watching for any sign that we might be close to experiencing those responses – what I call hyper-vigilance.

The Monster in The Closet

I don’t know why we learn to fear specific Flight or Fight responses, and why we learn them differently from each other. For myself, as I’ve said here before, it was light-headedness/vertigo and extremity (fingers and hands) numbness. (I also had some trouble with nausea, but that didn’t rock my world to the same degree.)

By comparison one of my oldest friends (and a fellow anxiety-fighter) was dizzy all the time from anxiety, but that didn’t bother her. For her it was the racing heart and shortness of breath that really made her crazy.

Some of it might have to do with our first experience with acute anxiety – we’re freaked out by that first rush of anxiety (or even full-blown panic attack), and whatever responses Flight or Fight tosses at us that we notice in particular are the ones we learn to be afraid of. Not sure it makes any difference – the point is we’re afraid.

And because we’re afraid we start maintaining a kind of diligent watching for any sign that we might be experiencing those responses again. This may not start the first or second time we dip into an anxious spell – or it may. But sooner or later (since we’re still doing that anxious thinking thing, whether we’re conscious of doing it or not), we’ll have another burst, another anxiety burst, and then look out –

Look out, because we’ve become afraid of, literally, our bodies potential responses to anxiety, as well as whatever feelings might be conjured by Flight or Fight.

It becomes, for many of us, the monster in the closet. And we begin to look fearfully over our shoulders, start to avoid situations where we’ve had those responses in the past, and life begins to shrink…

Monster Repellant

By becoming hyper-vigilant we begin to feed our anxiety, not close it down. We begin to pull our Comfort Zone close in to us, eager, desperate even, to avoid having those sensations/feelings. We begin to let anxiety run our lives.

It takes different forms in each of us – maybe we stop going to movies in the theatre (because we had a panic attack there one day) – or we stop running (because we had a nasty brush with that racing heart/cold sweat thing during one run) -or maybe we avoid eating out because of that ugly claustrophobic evening with our friends and we suddenly couldn’t breathe so well…

but in all these cases we step back from our fears/anxious feelings/sensations. At the core of it is our thinking – our fearful thinking – but what we focus on is the Flight or Fight responses that scare us.

We need some monster repellant. We need to understand that THERE IS NO DANGER in those sensations and feelings. And the best monster repellant we can have comes from deliberately confronting those sensations and feelings.

Ready, Aim, Fire…

If you’ve been reading this blog you know it isn’t just confronting. It is using that confronting in tandem with pulling apart the thinking that causes those fearful responses in the first place. And that’s exactly right.

We need to get enough practice at what I’ve been calling “discounting” your Flight or Fight responses – deliberately experiencing those sensations/feelings and remembering that they are only messengers from your body telling you that you THINK something dangerous is about to happen.

Let me ramp up my language choices for this practice. “Discounting” is good, and works. But we can kick that up a notch and even call this work “disregarding.” We can say that because those responses don’t mean ANYTHING – except that we’re thinking scary thoughts (consciously or, more often, outside of our conscious awareness.)

As we do that “disregarding” in tandem with identifying where we’ve turned problems into crises we are giving ourselves real, powerful leverage to break the cycle of anxiety in our lives.

One Last Thought For This Blog Post

Some of us have a hard time initially figuring out what our anxious thinking IS. That’s common and legal. 🙂 Here’s one great clue – when you find yourself suddenly in the middle of those Flight or Fight Responses – physical or emotional – work to track back what thoughts were running through your mind just prior.

Sometimes it is this hyper-vigilance thing. And sometimes you had a scary thought – and now your anxiety has betrayed its hand.

You don’t have to be afraid of your body or your emotions any more. Flight or Fight does NOT have to be a monster to you. You have the weapons you need to bring it down.

Next up – the role of medication and therapy in the war against anxiety and fear.

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