Updated: Feb 9, 2018
Sometimes I find myself sitting with a wonderfully brave, courageous person who has come to me for help and support in their battle with anxiety and panic attacks. For some the anxiety is brought on by specific situations such as public speaking, for some the anxiety seems to flare at random, unbidden and unpredictable. As we talk, the conversation may begin with a discussion about their fear of the anxiety itself, how it is affecting their lives, how it is preventing them from doing something they need to be able to do, preventing them from living the life they want to live. Talking about their anxiety in this way is a form of therapy in itself, being able to speak about it in a quiet, supportive space as I listen without judgement, without agenda. I may ask them to explain how they actually ‘feel’ when they are anxious or when a panic attack is looming, and to this question I often get a quizzical look in response!
We are so used to labelling our physical sensations as one particular emotion or another that it can seem odd to try to describe the physicality of an emotion, how the felt sense plays out in our body. However if you were dropped into your body from another realm, you would be able to identify your state of mind by taking note of the physical sensations felt in the body and useful information can be gathered from paying attention to these physical sensations. For example there would be a significant difference between how your body feels as you settle onto deckchair on a relaxing holiday compared to how it feels as you take your seat in an important interview. You may not be aware of this physical information for much of the time because these physical sensations tend to be beneath our usual level of consciousness, but if you look for physical signs you will find them. The location and energetic nature of the physical sensations of anxiety can often hold clues about how to treat them most effectively.
For some the anxiety is detectable in the way they breathe, in the sharpness of the intake of breath, in the shallowness of their breath, the way they are unable to descend the breath into their belly, maybe they notice their breathing rate increases, sometimes there is a sensation that it feels almost impossible to breathe. For others the strongest physical sensations may be different, maybe they notice changes in body temperature, maybe a heat flush creeping up the neck to the face, maybe a cold prickly sensation down their back, maybe their hands or feet turn cold. For others it may be something else entirely, it may be that they suddenly find the palms of their hands are sweaty or there is sweat trickling from their brow or down their side, or a sense of nausea may creep in, a pounding in their chest, a tightness in their neck or a churning feeling in their abdomen.
These are all signs from the body that the anxiety is not merely an issue with ‘thoughts’, these are clear physical signs that the issue also needs to be explored from a physical perspective. It is possible that the physical sensations are only present because of the thoughts in the mind, but it is equally possible that the thoughts are being hijacked by the overwhelming physical sensations. From an acupuncturists' perspective, the mind and body are just different levels of the same energetic structure. Acupuncture can be really effective for the treatment of anxiety as it can help to rebalance the energies in the body which can help to improve mental resilience and emotional stability.
There is so much focus on the fear of the anxiety or panic attacks and the lack of control during a particularly anxious episode, that there is not enough attention on how someone is able to bring themselves down to earth again. What resources were involved in that process? Was it important to talk to a particular person, to be in physical contact with someone; was it important to get outside, to get somewhere quiet, to get back home? The body has an incredible ability to self-regulate, and it is really useful to start to identify what helps trigger that ability to reset. It isn’t always easy to do this work on your own, sometimes it helps to have an attuned practitioner to help and guide you as you explore.
At the end of the day, it is helpful to focus a bit less on the panic attack itself, and a bit more on what enabled you to calm the breath, settle your heartbeat or soothe your stomach, a bit more about the miracle that is you, your ability to bring yourself back into balance. The fact that your body is able to reset and restore indicates that you have resources at your disposal; we just need to identify what they are and then to strengthen these resources so you can harness them more easily. We have little control over life around us, little control over the things that trigger anxiety and panic, but when the panic starts to rise it is possible to build the confidence you need to say to yourself “It’s OK, you got this”.