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  • Writer's pictureDominique du Pré

Keep Calm and Carry On

So, things aren’t exactly going to plan. You can feel beads of sweat forming on your forehead. Your muscles clench. Your heart is beating faster….

I vividly remember sitting in my first job interview. I could hear my heart pounding so loudly in my ears I found it difficult to hear anything else (and I did briefly wonder if everyone else could hear it too). My mouth was as dry as the Sahara desert and I was beginning to regret wearing the warm jacket.

Don’t worry, this is a normal reaction called the ‘fight or flight response’. It is a survival response that we have evolved to help us in potentially life threatening situations. This is science behind it in a nutshell: Part of your brain (the amygdala) perceives danger and sends a signal to the control centre of your brain (the hypothalamus). This in turn prepares your body to run away quickly or stand and fight by signalling the adrenal glands to release adrenaline. This is a hormone that speeds up heart and breathing rate, sharpen your senses and supply your muscles with more blood.

The good news is that this response makes you jump out of the way of a speeding car. However, if we repeatedly experience this response, the stress can lead to anxiety, depression and even phobias.

For some people, the anxiety can be completely overwhelming and really affect their quality of life. Medication and/or counselling can help with this. If your anxiety feels like it's too much to bear, don't try to go it alone - seek help.

But what can we do to help the 'everyday' anxiety? What can you do to stop yourself being controlled by this basic response?

Calm Breathing

I know, we breathe all the time, but what I am referring to here is controlled breathing.​​ ​​

  • Take a deep breath in through your nose (try to feel your belly expand, not just your ribcage).​​

  • Exhale through your mouth slowly for a count of 8. If you are in a private place make a ‘whoosh’ sound through your teeth as you do this (do it quietly if in public!)

  • Inhale slowly through your nose for a count of 4 (again feel your belly expand).

  • Hold the breath for a count of 7.

  • Then exhale for 8 as before and keep repeating the cycle.​​

This kind of breathing stimulates the part of your nervous system that calms you down.

Zone in on one of your senses

What are all the noises you can hear, for example? Really notice every sound. Or what sensations can you feel on your skin? How does the chair feel against your backside? Really focus in on one sense - sight, sound, taste, touch, smell or the sensation of breathing - it doesn't matter which one.

Focus in on stressed muscles

Mentally work your way down your body paying attention to each muscle group. Are they clenched? If so, concentrate on getting them to relax. It can help to tap or stroke them.

Visualise yourself in a less stressful situation

Somewhere calm and safe where you do not feel anxious. Maybe it's a comfy chair at home reading a book. Or perhaps you feel most relaxed sitting on a beach listening to the waves. It doesn't matter where this place is. Try to feel all the sensations you would if you were really there.

Have a conversation with yourself

Out loud if you want, but in your head is fine too. Pinpoint what is bringing on this response; what has your amygdala decided is dangerous? Is it really dangerous? What are my options? What are the possible outcomes? Could I ask someone to help? In short, counteract the unconscious part of your brain with the conscious calm part. Fight panic with reason.

Ride it out

This sounds a little harsh I know, but there is evidence that sitting with the feeling, allowing the symptoms to get worse actually gets your nervous system to the point where the symptoms start to reduce again (habituation). Usually we try to remove ourselves from the situation to escape the feelings when we are at the peak of feeling anxious. We avoid feeling uncomfortable. But if it is safe to do so, try to wait until the anxiety reduces. Try to get to know your anxiety and accept it as part of a huge spectrum of feelings we all experience.

These are just some of the things I try to calm my fight or flight response. I would be interested to hear what works for you?

And, just in case you were wondering, I did get that first job!

Does this sound familiar? If you would like to know more, please contact me.

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