In our last artical [link], we covered how we can have an emotional experience of a situation, like fear, and how at low levels, that is useful, informative and often exhilarating – that is, we enjoy it.
At higher levels, the fear can push us to consider only three possibilities – Freeze, Flight and Fight, generally in that order.
In an emergency, those choices could save our life – and that is a good thing.
However the job of fear and our ability to predict the future is to avoid that kind of emergency. This involves having a plan to deal with the expected threat.
We will do another video on threat planning.
The purpose of this video is to look at what happens when our fear system mis-detects a threat – either by over-representing the threat – which could be anxiety or phobia; or when there is no threat present and we have either general anxiety at milder levels, an anxiety attack at middle levels or a full on panic attack.
In the last video we talked about how our ramp up system is a sympathetic nervous system response to fear, and to counter it we need to implement a parasympathetic nervous system mechanism. Manually using this built in ramp down mechanism is a body hack.
There are many methods to implement the parasympathetic body hack, but they rely on some fairly specific components. We are going to look at those in this next section.
In brief, there are 5 main steps:
- Assessment – is there really something dangerous here. If not
- Disrupt the panic mechanism
- Quiet the mind with a distraction
- Solve the problem
- Learn from the experience
Step 1 Assessment
Imagine that our hind-brains have detected a potential threat. Is it real? The hind-brain doesn’t care, it just hits the panic button, which ramps us up for disaster.
The ramp up process has a whole bunch of things that occur that we have no real conscious control over – redirected blood flow, the size of our pupils, biochemicals in our blood stream, accelerated blood flow and pressure, intestinal disruption and accelerated breathing.
Once our body has reached panic mode, it has some expectations – that we will have to act with strong exertion to overcome an enemy, that we are going to be hurt, that everything will be rushed because the disaster is here.
At 10 out of 10 fear, we are in panic mode, while at around 7 we might just be at highly anxious. Either way, our goal is to drop that by a few points.
Step 1 – Is there actually a disaster here? If there is a strong sign of clear and present danger, then go with your instincts for now, because you don’t have time to solve it if the danger is that big. If it is not that big, then this is a false alarm.
Step 2 Disruption
Once we have worked out that this is a false alarm, we need to disrupt this automatic mechanism. While we don’t have much control over that big list, we do have some control over our breath – so we will start there.
Humans at rest normally breathe an “in and out” cycle between 12 to 20 times each minute. That is a breath every 3 to 5 seconds – a nice average for most people is 4 seconds, so that is the number we will work on in this video. If you find the exercises in this are a bit fast or slow for you, by all means adjust the numbers for your own comfort.
Two main components of disruptive breathing is that we breathe slowly instead of fast, and that when we can, we breathe deeply into our stomachs.
A few quick breath control methods
- The four breath cycle
Breathe in slowly for a count of 4 seconds, now hold it for 4 seconds, now slowly breathe out for four seconds, now hold that for four seconds, now repeat – breathe in for four seconds. It is important to count the seconds in our heads, or when safe, out loud.
- Sipping cold water
Get a glass or bottle of cool non-alcoholic drink. The point of this is that you can’t swallow liquid and breath air at the same time. Now, slowly sip the liquid until you have a nice mouth full. Slowly swallow a bit. Now another bit. Now another bit. How many swallows can you get to before it is done? Now take a slow breath cycle and sip some more.
- Hot drink exercise
Get a cup of hot drink. Take a deep breath and blow across the top to cool it. Take another deep breath and repeat a few more times. Now sip the hot drink and slowly swallow it. Repeat.
Breath control works because it disrupts our sympathetic nervous system response by doing something different, and that something is not a thing we would do if we were under attack. It is a clear signal to our hind-brain that it was wrong.
Step 3 – Quieting the Mind
I’m going to take the time to talk about time for a moment. Either something is clear and present and very “now”, such as a direct physical attack, or it is “soon” in the next few minutes – definitely less than 30 minutes. If the threat is more than half an hour away, in this panic response plan, it should be considered “forever”. Doing a calm down routine only takes minutes. The benefit of being calm when solving the threat is much higher than being panicked – so do the calm down exercises.
There is a risk of re-triggering panic prematurely when you try to solve the unsolvable with inadequate brain cells. We need to claim back a few more of those points out of 10 and lower the threat arousal system. The previous step was disruption, this step is about distraction.
You probably know some of these from social media. Unfortunately they don’t explain when to use them – which is after you’ve taken the edge off panic with breath control.
So here are a few:
Colours – in your mind, remember the sequence of the rainbow – ROY G BIV.
- R is red, look for something that is reddish.
- O is orange, look for something orange ish.
- Y is yellow, look for something yellow ish
- G is green, you know what to do
- B is blue.
- I is indigo – a dark purple
- V is violet – a light purple
Senses – in primary school we are taught that we have 5 primary senses. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching.
- Touch – feel the texture of part of your clothes or an object that you can touch that is near you. Look for sharp, blunt, rough and smooth
- Taste – what is the taste in your mouth right now? Is it sour, bitter, sweet, salty or umami (greasy)?
- Smell – can you smell something? What is it?
- Hearing – what is the loudest sound you can hear? What about the softest? The highest pitch? The lowest pitch?
- Sight – do the colour exercise we just did, or look for the thing that is furthest away from you and then something close up.
- From 30, count backwards in 3’s until you get to 0. 30, 27, 24…
- Think of two movies or stories that you really like. Who are the two characters you like the most? Now what if they met each other?
- What are you going to eat for your next meal?
- What are all the cards in your wallet – can you remember them? Now pull out your wallet and verify them.
There are quite a few other exercises that can be done, but they all have the common features of being able to be done in public without drawing much attention to yourself and each of these distracts you from the potential threat that isn’t here.
Step 4) Solve the Problem
Some threats (including false alarms and retreating threats) can be ignored which means there is nothing to do.
Some need to be monitored calmly to see if they increase, decrease or just stay irritating.
Some need active attention and a management plan. We will cover management plans in another video.
The question to ask yourself is this – which threat is this? And now that you know, what action plan do you pick?
Step 5) Learn from the Experience
Part of the anxiety cycle is not learning from our surviving and facing our fears. We got to the end – we survived! Now, what did we learn?
Sometimes we learn that the alarm was false – either because there was no nothing to fear, or the thing we feared was not accurate. By sticking around and facing the possibility of the threat coming, and it didn’t, we learned that false alarms can’t hurt you, and staying is powerful.
Sometimes we learn that we did need to act, but the action wasn’t panic. It was a calmer response with more thought. It is important to acknowledge that this worked, and that this was better than the panic response.
Sometimes we learn that the threat was real, and that we had a truly close encounter. But we survived, so our response was good enough. Good enough is nice, but what is nicer is a calm review of what actions we could do next time that would give us even better outcomes. These are things to practice.
Sometimes we learn that there is nothing we can do and we are just damn lucky that we survived. It is important to recognise that we survived because of dumb luck, and that no one else could have done better, because we had no part to play in this.
Sometimes we learn that our choices were wrong. How were they wrong? How could they be better? What do we need to practice for next time? Did one of the exercises not work well?
Many people don’t review their experience and learn from it. This is that opportunity.
Many people get stuck on reviewing all of their past mistakes and never implement a change. This is the time to break that cycle – figure out 1 to 3 things to change, to practice and do that. Now stop reviewing this experience because you have learned from it.