By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
We live in a pretty hectic and demanding culture and so stress is just part of the territory. And in moderate amounts stress is not a bad thing, but is a motivator. But this life can certainly bring either a hugely stressful event or can pile on the stressors in a way that would overload any of us. We start to panic. Maybe some rant and rave? Maybe some shut down? Maybe some can’t stop crying? Maybe some turn to food or alcohol or pornography? Often our bodies are affected with headaches, stomach aches, racing heart beat and high blood pressure, as well as the jitters and sore muscles. Are you there right now? Let me describe what is happening and then give some suggestions to manage it.
You see, external stressors produce all kinds of anxious, negative and fearful thoughts. Your brain interprets these thoughts and says – “Ah, there is an emergency” and so the brain decides to produce stress hormones and chemicals to get the body ready to deal with this emergency. This is called the fight, flight or freeze response, or an amygdala high-jacking. The amygdala is a part of the brain at the base of the brain where it connects to the spine. The amygdala has an amazing feature that serves the animal kingdom very well. When an animal senses danger it is able to react on instinct and escape quickly due to the amygdala. But in thinking humans it is different, because the amygdala cannot tell the difference between the thoughts “I am being attacked by a bear” and “my girlfriend just dumped me”. When you have anxious reactions the brain goes into action. And the amygdala has the ability in humans to actually bypass the pre-frontal cortex (where we do our processing and decision making) and launch our bodies into the flight, fight or freeze mode. And now, we are stressed out and our bodies are all amped up with adrenaline and other chemicals and we are breathing raged and our heart is racing and our muscles are tense. But there is no bear! And oh yeah, my pre-fontal cortex has been passed over and so my ability to think rationally is compromised.
So, let me walk through with you some options when you are high-jacked in this way and also how to work towards preventing these high-jackings, or be able to decrease their intensity. The goal when you are high-jacked is to be able to re-engage your rational self again and to do that you need to address the physiological element and also the mental element.
Time Out: If you are in the presence of the stressor or the trigger, it is going to be extremely difficult to come back to equilibrium while remaining there. So, the first order of business is to excuse yourself from the situation or person.
Breathing: Maybe this sounds too simplistic, but it does help. The goal is to focus on your breathing and practice what is called belly breathing – in which you draw air down into the lower parts of your lungs. It is called belly breathing because you practice it by putting a hand on your belly and making it rise and fall. You can also incorporate a mantra while breathing, such as saying peace when you exhale.
Exercise: Now that you have flooded your body with stress hormones, it can help to work some of them off by some kind of exercise. It doesn’t need to be strenuous; just try taking a walk.
In terms of the physiological approaches, I realize, one of the options seems to be about calming oneself and the other seems to be the opposite, but they are both addressing the stress chemicals that have been pumped into the body. The key is to try each one at different times and see which one works better for you.
Mental: You need to be able to re-engage your rational self, but this is a challenge, since the amygdala has high-jacked you. In this state, we have difficulty concentrating, remembering and thinking clearly. However, to jump start our rational self we don’t need to calm down completely. We just need to back off of being stuck up on level 10 on a 1-10 scale. If we can get ourselves down to maybe 7, then we can begin to re-engage a rational process. This is what the breathing and/or exercise are meant to do. You aren’t attempting to get yourself all the way back to equilibrium by just the physiological approaches on their own. A third approach is through distraction.
Distraction: This method is about re-directing your attention and thought process away from the stressor to something benign. You could try watching TV or reading a book? This approach works better for low to moderate stressors and so may not be effective if you’ve reached level 10. If after 10-15 minutes you have not experienced a reduction in physical symptoms and haven’t gotten your mind off the stressor, then it’s time to try something else.
Mental Processing: If you can’t distract yourself, then it is likely something that you really need to attend to. Get some paper and start writing out your experience of the event and your response and feelings about it. Now, here’s the part where we re-engage our rational self. Draw a vertical line down the middle of the paper. On the left you write out the event and your response. That is your emotional self side. Then you come over to the right side of the paper and begin to write our some probing questions such as, “What is the significance of this for me?”, “When have I experienced or felt similarly?”, “Are there other emotions underneath these responses in me?” “
And then, “What are some alternatives for how to address this issue?” You see, the right side of the paper represents the rational self. This exercise trains you to be able to engage the rational self over time without needing to write it out.
One More thing: You probably would like to improve your ability to prevent yourself from hitting level 10 on the freak out scale. One good way to assist yourself in this is to learn to recognize your physical symptoms that indicate your are getting keyed up, because often our bodies experience it before our mind recognizes it. If you can become aware that you are heading there, you have a chance to cut it off at the pass. If you can apply these approaches at level 7 – getting a time out and then either distracting yourself or utilizing breathing or exercise and some mental processing, you can decrease the intensity of the potential trigger and, with practice, increase your self control.
I know that freaking out isn’t fun. But if you put in this work you should be able to see the severity and frequency decrease.
I am here to help. If you would like to schedule an appointment with me, call our office at 407-647-7005.
Matt Sandford is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and has been counseling for 8 years. Previously he worked in student ministry for 14 years, including two years in China. He has been married for 21 years and he and his wife are raising twins.
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