Managing Anxiety Short and Long Term

Anxiety is a brain-based function of the fear/flight/fight response. It starts in the primitive part of the human brain located in the back of the skull on top of the spinal column.  This part of the brain is activated when something is perceived by it to be dangerous or threatening.  It fires off twice as fast as you can think a thought.  Normally, it activates when you see somebody getting ready to harm or threaten you.  However,  it can also be activated by situations that resemble events long ago from childhood that were perceived as dangerous, frightening,  or terrifying.   When it is activated, the primitive brain sends a message to the parasympathetic nervous system several things happen.  The adrenal glands dump a bunch of adrenaline into your system.  Your heartbeat increases. Your breathing gets deeper and quicker;  your nerve endings get more sensitive so that you can pick up more information.

Unfortunately, for someone whose fight/flight response is hardwired by trauma,  it is much easier to trigger this response in the body and much more difficult to suppress.  A child who grows up in a chaotic home (for whatever reason) and perceives that chaos as very bad and frightening will grow up experiencing anything resembling chaos as bad and frightening.  This is problematic for parents who have children.  Obviously,  it is also problematic for people with PTSD because what happens is that PTSD is causing chaos in the sufferer and anything in the environment (spouse, children, work) that isn’t perfectly in order becomes the last straw of tolerance.  

Long Term

This is a little complicated to deal with.  There are both long term and quick in the moment responses you can use to help yourself overcome anxiety.  The first thing you need to do is interrupt the parasympathetic response to the adrenaline.  That is what medication does.  It chemically interrupts the adrenal trigger as well as the adrenaline effects.   Initially, that is the only way it can happen.  

The second thing that needs to happen is that once the medication has anxiety under control, you must engage in therapy to hard wire your brain to do things differently.  There are a few techniques that you can to short c circuit the response, but only after medication is being effectively used.

One treatment method is prolonged exposure.  In this method, you are subjected to the event again and again, a little bit at a time and slowly increasing the exposure until the event no longer causes distress.  However, it should only be used on single events and only after your medication is on board.  Otherwise, PE is just torture.  Another treatment method of doing this is biofeedback.  Basically, you teach yourself how to have control of your body.  You control blood pressure, lower your heart rate, and bring yourself into a sense of relaxation. Another thing you can do is learn how to be mindful – to be present in the moment you find yourself.  This includes grounding techniques – visual or tactile touchstones that help you stay present in your body and in the moment.  Notice your surroundings.  Notice the color of the mats on the pictures on the wall.  Develop a safe place in your mind.  Imagine it in all five of your senses.  Feel and smell the air of your safe place, feel the ground under your feet.  Hear the sounds of the place.  Feel the peacefulness.  Other methods for in the moment help include heart tapping (when you mimic your heartbeat on your chest in time with your heart beat and gradually slow it down), and deep breathing (paying attention to the flow of air in and out of your body).  

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing works well for treatment of long term anxiety.  The acronym for this is EMDR.  It doesn’t work for everyone, and may be problematic for those diagnosed with complex post traumatic stress disorder, but it is a good therapy for treatment of anxiety. 

Short Term

Dealing with anxiety in the short term means quick techniques.  These include counting back from 30, deep breathing, self distracting, and keeping busy.  

Conclusion

Anxiety is not something you just get over.  It requires treatment, and medication.  It is not something you can will away, but it is something you can manage and heal.  Medication alone won’t do it because it is a brain malfunction, and it CAN be healed.  Medication treats the symptoms, but does not heal the injury.

 

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About

I'm Kim, and I am a licensed trauma therapist working in Fayetteville, NC. I'm prior active duty, and grew up in a military family. I play keys in a band, play practical jokes, and feel enormously privileged to write for this blog.

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This blog is for information only. It is not intended as a replacement for therapy. If you need additional help, please see a qualified therapist.