In my last post I wrote about the ‘fight or flight’ response and how I needed to break the cycle of thinking that there was something wrong; feeling anxious and then experiencing the symptoms of anxiety. How I needed to recognise the trigger events that would kick off the anxiety and to reassure myself that there was, in fact, no danger at all. And finally, how once I could do all of that then I could start to deal with the symptoms to counteract the fight or flight response and being able to cope with the anxiety.
I was asked a question early on which has always stayed with me…I was asked to describe the moment immediately prior to having a panic attack, not the actual ‘event’ itself or the physical symptoms, but what was I feeling right before it happened?
It was an odd question to ask? Why? Because panic attacks can and do happen suddenly and seemingly for no apparent reason. You don’t have time to assess the situation to be able to recall every detail, but hindsight is a wonderful thing once you can train your mind to take you to that place.
The feeling that came to mind was being so thoroughly overwhelmed. The only way I could analogise it was a bucket filling with water. At a certain point the water reaches the top of the bucket and spills out over the edge. That was the feeling, the feeling where everything emotionally and physically had built up to a point, a tipping point if you will, where it just became too much and something had to give!
“Use your senses fully. Be where you are. Look around. Just look, don’t interpret.
Be aware of the silent presence of each thing.
Be aware of the space that allows everything to be.
Listen to the sounds; don’t judge them.
Listen to the silence beneath the sounds.
Touch something – anything – and feel and acknowledge its being.
Allow the “isness” of all things. Move deeply into the Now.”
– Eckhart Tolle
So the next question was asked…what does the bucket represent? Damn these questions were good! It meant I had to think and think really hard. The bucket and the flowing water represent me, my life. It’s filling up with everything that’s going on in every moment of every day. Okay, then how do you stop the bucket from filling up and overflowing? Easy, just turn off the tap! No, you can’t do that, you just said that the flowing water represents your life. Well…the next logical step would be to put holes in the bucket, but not too many holes or else the bucket will never have water in it!
Then the next question came, which was pretty obvious when you think about it, but one that I just could not answer in that moment…what do the holes in the bucket represent?
I came away not having given an answer, but I was asked to go off and think about it. It was a couple of days later and I’d woken up around 3am, not that I’d been asleep for long anyway…but that’s a topic for another occasion. I recall picking up my phone and opening the notes app and after typing in a single word I went back to sleep. I awoke a few hours later and I did that ‘muscle memory’ thing that we all probably do now in this digital age, and I reached for my phone to check emails and social media accounts for the latest news, posts and comments. But when I opened my phone the notes app was still open with one word on screen: Distraction.
Distraction? Why I had written that? Then I remembered the bucket…the holes in the bucket represented distraction. The thing is, I already had the answers, in fact I was already doing these ‘distractions’…I just needed to be asked the questions in such a way in order for me to realise and to make the connection to these ‘healthy’ distractions that I’d been doing for so long.
So what were these distractions? Well…I like to read, watch a film, a television show or a sports event. I love listening to music, going for a walk at lunchtime, taking the dog for a walk…these were all relaxation techniques that I was already doing but now I needed to make a new association, in other words not just doing them, but to use them as tools to help me reduce the stress and anxiety. Eventually I would come to learn that these relaxation techniques would not only lower my heart rate and reduce the physical tension in my body, but would also decrease the negative thoughts and the worry. I just needed to add a few more relaxation tools to my regime.
Deep breathing is a favourite of mine, once I got the hang of it and stopped getting dizzy…being able to focus my attention solely to the breathing process in order to clear my mind.
Visualisation is another great technique in helping me to let go of the stress and anxiety. I use my imagination to take myself away to a calm and happy place. It also relaxes my body and allows my mind to feel as though I am actually there. And the beauty of these relaxation techniques is that they can be done at the start of the day, the end of the day or at any point in between to relieve anxiety and to let go of the built up tension and stress experienced during the day.
I have read though, that ‘distraction’ techniques can be more about avoiding your anxiety symptoms, that you are misleading yourself if you think that by not noticing the symptoms then they won’t bother you…and that by avoiding them this will only lead to more, not less, mental health issues.
I make no apologies, but that is just not true. For me personally, the distraction techniques work and work really well! And that is the nature of mental illness; it is very personal, it is going to be different for everyone! Okay, my anxiety still gets the best of me and some days it can be a struggle, but once I accepted it and learned to work with it instead of against it, then my life improved greatly.
I’ll sign off this week by leaving you with one of my ‘distractions’, and that is music. I’ve just finished watching Ricky Gervais’s new Netflix show After Life. It’s six episodes of sad and funny, but it’s the music that really got me. I’ve found a new band called Hammock, a two member American duo that create atmospheric music by combining orchestral arrangements with electronic beats, piano and droning guitar.
There are several of their beautiful ambient tracks in the show, namely ‘The Silence’ from their 2005 album ‘Kenotic’, or ‘Together Alone’ from the 2012 album ‘Departure Songs’…but my favourite track is not from the show and is called ‘Tremendum’ from their most recent 2018 album ‘Universalis’.
I’ve included it here for you to listen to…..just put your headphones on, kick back, relax and make the ‘Now’ the primary focus of your life.