For all my fellow anxiety sufferers, here’s a familiar situation. You have some stress that you would otherwise be able to handle without freaking out, but suddenly you find yourself really irritable or really panicked. This situation seems dire! How am I going to deal with this actually-not-so-stressful-situation-that-feels-like-the-end-of-the-world????? You feel your heart pounding in your chest, you are either out of breath or have stopped breathing completely and your muscles are so tight that you could bounce a quarter off of them. You lash out at innocent bystanders or are frozen, barely blinking. As this internal tornado is spinning, you are also trying to pretend like everything is ok.
Without realizing it, you have just entered fight or flight mode. Some inside or outside trigger occurred that your anxiety interpreted as danger. And I mean REAL danger. Not like, in danger of being embarrassed or doing something you regret danger. More like, I am about to get seriously hurt or die danger. When your brain gets this message, a very primitive part of you reacts in an attempt to get you out of said danger by either fighting or running away. It’s actually a pretty fantastic reaction to have when you are being chased by a lion or by a person with bad intentions, for that matter. This instinct will alert all of your bodily functions that it’s GO TIME! Muscles are ready to fight or flee, heart rate speeds up and blood starts pumping. The reaction is physical and unconscious.
Here is where anxiety steps in and messes everything up for us (again). When you have social anxiety and are at a networking event, you are being triggered by the fear of meeting new people. Your anxiety is sending messages to your brain non-stop. “WTF are we doing here, we are going to DIIIIEEEEEE!!!!”. “Get to safety ASAP, hide in the coat closet!!!” “My boss is headed this way, I will never survive this!!!” Unfortunately, your primitive brain doesn’t know that you are not in ACTUAL danger and that your anxiety is being quite overdramatic. It takes your anxiety very literally and kicks fight or flight in for protection. So here you are, trying your best to make connections with other people and your body is doing everything within it’s power to get you to stop. Thus the sweating, difficulty concentrating and chaotic thoughts. You are not in a frame of mind to anything that requires any higher level thinking or behaving. You are basically a gazelle in the Savannah running away from a lion.
Except you aren’t.
You are a person who wants to be able to use reason and logic in order to stop the fight or fight instinct from ruining your night! You don’t want to be the gazelle, you want to be the lion. Confident, assertive and strong. So, how can you change unconscious, physiological reactions to anxiety when you are in the middle of them?
You gotta keep regulated.
(If you aren’t a 90’s kid, you may miss this reference to the Offspring song, Come out and Play. While I am writing this post, I can’t get the tune out of my head. You gotta keep em separated….)
Anyway, there is a way to outmaneuver fight or flight and that is to regulate your brain. In fight or flight, you are completely unregulated. Your “lower brain” or limbic system takes over while your “thinking brain” or prefrontal cortex shuts down functions. When your logical brain goes offline, it can be very difficult to bring it back online but it is very possible! Here are some tips to bringing yourself out of fight or flight when you are anxious:
- Try to catch it early. For those of us with longstanding anxiety, this can be tricky. We have gone into panic mode so quickly, for so long that it becomes a habit. You can change this habit by identifying early signs of anxiety that happen before fight or flight kicks in and work to calm down in a more logical state of mind. You can also mentally prepare yourself for situations that are predictably stressful for you.
- Gain awareness when fight or flight is in full effect. If you aren’t lucky enough to catch it early, take a mental step back when you feel overcome by panic, both physically and mentally. If you feel out of control you are probably in a fight or flight state. Focus on calming the body down by taking deep breaths, shaking out your muscles and physically removing yourself from your situation until you can get under control. Tell yourself that you are okay, that you are safe over and over again until your body starts to calm down.
- Reboot your brain and bring your logic back online. Try some grounding- use your senses to become present in your surroundings. Tell your self what color the walls and carpet are, what it smells like, what time it is, etc. Do anything you can turn on your thinking brain so that it can help you make the next best decision. Remind yourself that you have the ability to control your mind and body. Encourage and comfort yourself in order to come back fully to your situation.
- Learn from your experiences. This can be a trial and error type of situation. You may try several different techniques until something sticks. Or you may need to practice the same technique over and over until you feel confident in your ability to resolve being in this state of mind. Bottom line is that this is a process. You didn’t get this way overnight and changing habitual behaviors is hard, tedious work.
- Ask for support. If you have people close to you that you can confide in, let them know what you are working on and how they can help you. You could ask your spouse or friend to remind you to try grounding or to tell you that you are safe when they see that you need help. It’s always easier to get outside of your brain when you have someone who actually is outside of your brain helping you.
- Seek professional help. There are many reasons that people experience fight or flight in reaction to various triggers. Often, those who quickly and often go into this state of mind have experienced trauma that has actually changed their brain functioning. Having the support and guidance of a therapist who specializes in anxiety and trauma is essential in processing the trauma so that the triggers are not as impactful.
So remember these skills to get yourself regulated and you’ll find yourself the life of the party at the next networking event! Or at the very least you’ll be able to survive without hiding in the coat closet.