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It was a blistering winter morning as I was on my way to work. I skipped the local roads for the highway, assuming the snowplows had prioritized clearing this route.
I was wrong.
Driving on the icy road was treacherous. I tightly gripped the steering wheel struggling to maintain control of my car. The blistering wind was blowing snow relentlessly, which impaired visibility. I slowly approached a looming bridge that seemed more imposing than usual.
All of a sudden, a pair of towering lights chased me down from my rearview mirror. A speeding semi-truck was unfazed by the snowstorm.
Worry thoughts swirled around my head.
“Could the semi see me?”
“Were they going to run me over?”
“Was I going to lose control of my vehicle and fall off the bridge?”
My work shirt was drenched in sweat. My chest and throat were tightening up. Even though I was sitting in a car, I was gasping for air as if I had run an all-out sprint. My neck and upper back muscles were rock-hard. A pounding headache only added to the discomfort.
Thanks to years of training, I knew I was in the midst of a panic attack. It is a terrifying experience involving an abrupt surge of anxiety. It is not uncommon for people to seek immediate medical attention the very first time they have a panic attack, only to be told their workup is normal. Paradoxically, this only exacerbates the anxiety associated with the experience.
Anxiety often stems from a thought (in this case, thinking about being run over by a semi). I have previously shared five questions to navigate anxiety-provoking thoughts.
However, anxiety is an interplay of cognitive and physical symptoms. There are times when the physical symptoms of anxiety become so intense that working on your thoughts is nearly impossible. In this scenario, it is important to regain control of your body.
Here are five tips to reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety.
1. Take Slow, Deep Breaths
When anxiety spikes, you are likely engaging in shallow, rapid breathing. Changing the rhythm of your breath can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system, which signals your body to relax.
The key is to breathe slowly from your abdomen and increase the duration of your exhalation. A common technique is to inhale through your nose for four seconds and exhale through your mouth for eight seconds.
Breathing exercises are also helpful because they direct your mind away from your worried thoughts and toward your sphere of control. Even when life becomes overwhelming, your breath is one thing you can control.
It can be helpful to incorporate breathing exercises into your daily routine, even on days you are not particularly anxious. Practicing something consistently will help you become better at it. The last thing you want is to rely on something you do not feel competent in.
2. Cold Exposure
Even though more research is needed, cold exposure is garnering attention for its potential mental health benefits.
I will personally skip the freezing showers and ice baths. However, even drinking some cold water or holding onto an ice cube can reduce anxiety. When work gets hectic, I find it helpful to splash cold water on my face for a few seconds. You can even turn on the A/C if you feel anxious during your drive.
3. Physical Activity
Studies show that exercise reduces anxiety through different biological and psychological mechanisms. Biological changes include lower sympathetic nervous reactivity and an increase in the availability of anti-anxiety chemicals such as serotonin.
In our fast-paced lives, it can be challenging to find the time to incorporate one more thing into our jam-packed schedules. Remember that some exercise is better than none. Even a 10-minute walk during your lunch break or an evening stroll around your neighborhood can be helpful.
4. Relax Your Muscles
Anxiety is characterized by muscle tension. In an effort to brace itself from potential danger, your body tenses up by raising your shoulders, clenching your jaw, and tightening your upper back and neck.
Different types of relaxation techniques have been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety. Notice where your body holds its anxiety and stretches those muscles.
Body posture affects how we feel. Holding on to muscle tension is only telling your brain’s amygdala, which modulates the fear response, to keep firing because the danger is still there.
5. Hold Your Ground
The worst thing you can do when anxiety strikes is to have anxiety about your anxiety. Feeling helpless will further spiral your anxiety out of control.
Maintain your composure. The key is to recognize your signs of anxiety and to implement your coping strategies as soon as possible. The longer you wait to employ them, the harder it is to regain control of your body.
In conclusion, anxiety is associated with a host of physical symptoms. In extreme cases, a surge in anxiety can manifest as a panic attack. It is important to develop strategies to reduce these symptoms and regain control.
Finally, if you are experiencing any difficulty with anxiety symptoms, please contact your local healthcare provider or mental health professional for help. In case of a mental health emergency, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency department. This article does not constitute medical advice.
To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.