By Tanya Kowalenko, Educator and Event Planner for C.M.H.A. H.K.P.R.
Our bodies are hardwired for survival.
Imagine for a moment that you are walking in the woods and, all of a sudden, you see a rattlesnake on the path. As soon as you see and hear the snake, the hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body.
This alarm system signals the adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol (aka: the stress hormones), which then work to increase your heart rate, give you a boost in energy, heighten your perception and awareness, and increase body tension. They also put a pause on body functions that aren’t necessary in threatening situations, such as digestion, reproduction and the immune system.
In the situation with the rattlesnake, this stress response would help you to respond in the most appropriate way, by either fighting, fleeing, or freezing. This “fight, flight, or freeze” response, can literally save our lives.
Now, I want you to imagine walking down this same path in the woods, the day is beautiful and the birds are chirping. All of a sudden, the same alarm system goes off in your body.
But this time, there is no rattlesnake.
While this stress response, or anxiety as you might know it, can be a normal and healthy response to a dangerous situation, it can also arise seemingly out of nowhere or in response to non-threatening circumstances. Perhaps the sound of the bird chirping invoked a traumatic memory from the past, or a thought about some potential future threat had arisen in the mind. Whatever the case, while this fight, flight or flee response might have been necessary and life-saving in the past we can see, in the second scenario above, that it wasn’t needed.
When anxiety arises when it’s not necessary, we can learn to tune in to the present moment, actively calm our stress response, ground our awareness in the present moment as it is now, not as we fear it to be, and train the brain to respond in a way that is appropriate for the situation.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share some tools, rooted in mindfulness that can help you to do just that.
Before moving on, however, I want to be clear that this is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. While focusing on the breath, for example, can be supportive for some, for others it can increase anxiety. I also want to acknowledge that, depending on the severity of your anxiety or trauma history, you may need more support before being able to engage with these tools. If anxiety is impairing your everyday functioning, I encourage you to seek professional support.
Tool #1: Focus on the feeling of physical support
When anxiety comes on, we can feel like a boat out at sea without an anchor. The mind may be spinning and it can feel like we’re losing control.
When this happens, we can take a moment to focus our attention on the support available in our environment. This can be done in a variety of ways…
~ Feel your feet firmly planted on the floor. You can even imagine roots, like a tree, coming out of your feet and grounding you. Feel the difference in your experience.
~ If you’re sitting or lying down, let yourself sink into the chair, couch or bed. Allow it to support you. Let your weight drop into it and know that it can hold you. You can explore different positions and furniture and notice which ones feel most supportive to you.
~ If you’re walking, slow it down and notice how your feet hit the ground.
Doing this can help to bring you back to the present moment, where there is no danger. By feeling the physical support available to you right now, your body can begin to relax and dial the alarm system back.
Stay tuned over the next couple of weeks as I share more grounding techniques you can explore.
Note: I am assuming that you are not in a dangerous or threatening situation. If you are in fact in a dangerous situation, please reach out to the appropriate support to keep yourself safe. This may include contacting Four County Crisis by calling 705-745-6484 or toll-free 1-866-995-9933.