Anxiety is part of all of our lives, so it is not surprising that anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental health problems. Fortunately, they are also highly treatable.
Through the practice of raising awareness of your fight, flight, or freeze response, practicing mindfulness and opposite action you can break the cycle of anxiety by regulating your autonomic nervous system (fight, flight, and freeze and rest and digest) and rewiring your brain.
1. Fight, Flight, or Freeze
Fight, flight, or freeze is our body’s hardwired security system. Every person has one of these handy alarms and yours must be working because well, you are alive. The problem is that this protective instinct can be triggered by imagined and future threats, not only when you are in immediate danger. “It can be said that with anxiety, the alarm system is working extremely well, but it’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, like a smoke detector over a toaster, creating a false alarm” (p. 67, Enns, 2018)
An important distinction is understanding fear vs. anxiety. Fear is a present moment experience, for example, your house is on fire, whereas anxiety is future oriented, worrying that your house might burn down.
Anxiety is a malfunctioning protective instinct that you can learn to regulate.
Mindfulness is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990) as paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.
How can we apply mindfulness to the fight, flight or freeze response?
- Nonjudgmentally like a curious scientist pay attention to what is happening right now.
- Check in with your body. Do you recognize any fight, flight, or freeze symptoms?
- Rapid heartbeat
- Narrowing of field of vision / tunnel vision
- Muscle tension
- Racing thoughts
- Shortness of breath
- Dry mouth
- Stomach pains
- Use your five senses to help orient yourself to the present moment.
- Name and describe what you notice.
Why? Fake news. Your brain does not know the difference between a perceived threat and an actual threat. Intentionally paying attention to your present moment experience broadens what is often a narrow perspective (see above fight, flight, or freeze symptom). In these mindful moments, we are not trying to change anything, instead we are simply paying attention to what is already happening. New messages are being sent to the brain, “she is in her bedroom” “there are birds chirping” “she is safe in bed” and before we know it our body begins to relax. Our rest and digest system has been activated and we have reprogramed our brain to recognize a false alarm. This takes practice.
3. Opposite Action
This DBT skill is as simple as it sounds: do the opposite of what you feel like doing. When faced with fear, opposite action helps your brain figure out what is not actually dangerous and does not need to be avoided. Once your brain makes that connection, your fear tends to diminish. (Chapman, Gratz, & Tull, 2011). Try it out for yourself! Ease in by trying opposite action with less activating emotions and behaviours.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Learning a new skill takes time and a lot of practice. How many people can just pick up a guitar and know how to play it? Not many. Developing skills requires intention and repetition. Set small goals and work up to bigger ones.
When breaking the cycle of anxiety some people prefer a self-directed approach whereas others find working with a therapist helpful . Whatever path you decide remember to be kind to yourself and to practice, practice, practice. You’ve got this!
Chapman, A. L., Gratz, K. L., & Tull, M. T. (2011). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook for anxiety: Breaking free from worry, panic, PTSD & other anxiety symptoms. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Enns, V. (2018). Counselling insights: Practical strategies for helping others with anxiety, trauma, grief, and more. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Achieve Publishing.
Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT Skills Training Manual. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living. New York, NY: Bantam Dell.