The other day I was in the dentist office. Within minutes of being placed in the chair, the hygienist’s gloved fingers were inside my mouth. There was an immediate emotional reaction of anxiety as I tried to divert my thoughts from biting her fingers. (Yes, even therapists have strange phobias.)
Fortunately, that same week a client presented with severe anxiety so the steps for overcoming an attack were in my mind. Here is what I did to calm down in the moment:
- Be aware. Anxiety can manifest in different ways. There are physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, difficulty breathing, sweaty palms, tightness in the chest, and a knot in the stomach. And there are mental symptoms such as foggy thinking, confusion, obsessive thinking and racing thoughts. Become aware of the early signs of anxiety before it reaches an attack.
- Welcome the feeling. Instead of becoming anxious about being anxious which only increases the tension, see the anxiety as a friendly reminder. Sometimes the uneasiness is there to warn a person of a potential danger. Fear often begins as apprehension so this is the time to welcome the feeling, not fight it. It is much easier to discern the reason for the anxiety when the reaction is treated with calmness.
- Look, listen, and observe. Pay attention to the environmental surroundings at the first sign of anxiousness. Look for a potential trigger or a warning sign of something harmful. Listen for anything out of sorts or a noise that might have activated the reaction. And observe the other people in the room to see if their behavior sparked a response. Store this information away for later; don’t try to overanalyze the anxiety in the moment.
- Become present. One of the tools of mindfulness is learning how to become present in a given moment. Focus on breathing deeply, filling the lungs up with air, and releasing every drop of breath. Allow the breath to travel throughout the body finding areas of tension. Focus on releasing that stress with each breath.
- Good self-talk. As the breathing slows the heart rate, channel thoughts to sayings like, “This moment will pass,” “I can handle this,” and “I’ll figure it out later.” Taking a break from any analysis frees up the mind to focus on reducing the anxiousness. Distraction is another effective method. Think of a calming place and imagine being there.
- Return to moment. As soon as the anxiousness passes, quickly return back to the moment and become aware of the surroundings. Reengage in activities or conversation so the disruption is minimized for now. Most likely others won’t even notice the anxious moment.
- Evaluate experience. Later in the day take a few minutes to evaluate the anxiety and relive the moment. Was the trigger a warning signal? Did it bring back a memory? How long did it take to reset the emotions? Was there a residual effect from the occurrence? This information is valuable and unique to each person, event or circumstance.
To reduce these anxious reactions going forward, it is important to properly evaluate each event. For me, my experience with a dental office is something of a running joke with my dentist. It actually stems from a traumatic incident that happened over 20 years ago. Fortunately, with the help of professional counseling the pieces were put together and the attacks have greatly minimized.