By: Brad Kennington, LMFT, LPC-S
Anxiety is a normal part of life. Speaking in front of people, a job interview, first dates, taking a test are everyday situations that can make us feel jittery. Anxiety is a healthy part of life, for without it we would not be able to sense real threats to our wellbeing.
When we sense danger or feel threatened, our “flight or fight” mechanism is triggered. And when we are in “flight or fight” mode, our thinking brain, the part of the brain that is rational and logical, is dialed back and our emotional brain kicks in to high gear. Our bodies also receive a flood of stress hormones into our bloodstream as our breathing and heart rate increases and our focus becomes survival and protecting ourselves from the perceived threat. But sometimes anxiety can get the best of us if we allow perception to become reality.
Several years after the September 11th attacks, I was on an early morning flight just before the July 4th weekend headed to Washington, DC where I was scheduled to speak at a national conference. Having never spoken at a national conference before, I was both nervous and excited. My nerves and excitement, however, turned into shear panic thirty minutes prior to landing in DC.
The flight attendant told the passengers to remain in our seats for the duration of the flight. My mind began to race. The reason for not allowing anyone to leave their seats, of course, was because of the terrorist hijackings. All of a sudden my mind starts painting a dooms day scenario: terrorists wanting to have “bombs bursting in air” over DC on July 4thweekend. My normal (and healthy) anxiety about my upcoming speech quickly merged with the irrational anxiety of being a huge July 4th firework over the DC sky to create a perfect storm of panic. To exacerbate things, I was in the middle seat in a plane 30,000 feet high with nowhere to move.
I was trapped. The plane was not being hijacked, but my rational brain sure was!
So, I decided to take the advice I tell my clients who struggle with anxiety. I focused on my breathing and took slow, deep breaths. I put away my speech that I was reviewing (no need to add any amount of anxiety to the mix). I started talking to a friend of mine who was traveling with me about our upcoming weekend plans in DC. Think about fun things! That helped but the conversation ended and I was still anxious. When the conversation stopped, I picked up the Sky Mall catalogue to distract myself. I focused on one item in the catalogue—a wooden bench—and started describing it to myself—the color, how it might feel or smell, etc., while taking slow breaths. My anxiety finally started to descend. I was reentering the cockpit of my brain and regaining control.
It seems almost silly that a simple distraction helped do the trick, but it worked. By removing other anxiety-producing situations (my speech) and focusing on one thing (the wooden bench) and describing it to myself using my senses (what it looked like, may
feel or taste or smell like), I was moving from the super aroused emotional brain to the more calm thinking part of the brain—all while regulating my breathing.
Having anxiety is just part of life. It’s knowing how to manage it that makes life more livable.
Brad Kennington, LMFT, LPC-S
Executive Director & COO
Cedar Springs Austin
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