I often see patients complaining of anxiety and panic attacks. There was the time when my local counseling service was very slow and the only help I could offer those poor people was a referral letter and a promise that someone will contact them in 2-3 months. It did not sound right to me. I WAS LETTING MY PATIENTS DOWN.
I decided I had to find a way to help them during my appointments. I quickly realized that it was impossible to have a lengthy discussion about anxiety in 10 minutes. The problems related to anxiety were always complicated and long. I HAD TO FIND THE WAY OF HELPING THEM WITHOUT LISTENING TO THE STORY.
I was quite surprised that there are many of such methods around. I tried them on my friends and my family and I found some of them very effective. None of them suits everyone but there is a good choice of techniques. The common feature of all of them is that THE STORY IS NOT IMPORTANT. It really does not matter what you are anxious about. What matters is HOW you know you are anxious.
First I ask to become anxious about this ‘thing’ while they sit in front of me. It is usually very easy. Then I ask to grade an anxiety on a scale from one to ten. It usually takes a few moments. Once the number is decided I ask to become a bit more anxious and jump one point higher on the scale. They are usually surprised with this request but after a short while everyone does it.
When they finish, I ask how they know the anxiety has become worse. They seem confused and usually say ‘I just feel it.’ Then I ask ‘But what exactly do you feel?’ They look at me even more confused and they do not know what to say.
Then I explain – ‘The moment you try to become more anxious you think about someone or something who/which triggers the anxiety. At the same time you sense the physical tension growing somewhere in your body (e.g. lump in the throat or knot in the stomach). It is a spasm of the muscle group reacting directly to the anxious thinking. Once the spasm gets stronger you know that the anxiety has worsened.’ This short exercise gives my patients profound insight to the mechanism of anxiety. There is only one thing left – helping them to stop it.
It is not a coincidence that we use the same word ‘feeling’ to describe physical discomfort and emotions.
We say, ‘I feel pain’ or ‘I feel anxious or angry”.
A physical feeling related to anxiety is caused by a spasm of a specific group of muscles and helps us to recognize how we feel. THIS IS HOW THE BODY CONNECTS WITH THE MIND. When the spasm becomes chronic it starts causing a physical pain. It is because a cramped muscle cuts itself from a regular blood supply and becomes unhealthy.
Muscle spasm can be felt as
This caused by a tension of muscles located on the skull, in the neck and in both temples. Long term tension of these muscles causes tension headaches.
Lump in the throat is triggered by muscles located in the throat. They are responsible for swallowing and speaking. People who suffer from anxiety which affects these muscles have problems with socializing, public speaking and eating in public places.
It is caused by spasms of muscles which are in the bowels. These muscles are used to pushed swallowed food down along our digestive system. They form something called a peristaltic wave. They have to be very precisely coordinated in order to do their job properly. Anxiety makes the very chaotic and not well digested food is stuck in the bowels. After some time it ferments (like a compost in the garden) and starts releasing gases which have nowhere to go and we feel bloated. This is how Irritable Bowel Syndrome starts.
Knot in the stomach is cause by tension of the diaphragm which is a flat group of muscles dividing our body to a chest and an abdomen. The diaphragm moves up and down all our lives and it is the main muscle we use for breathing. When anxiety locates in this muscle we can have problems with free breathing. Extreme tension of the diaphragm is responsible for panic attacks.
It means that anxiety can often be downgraded to just another body sensation like having a full bladder or empty stomach and similarly triggers various behaviors in order to release it. A full bladder makes you look for the toilet, an empty stomach makes you search for food and anxiety makes you overeat or eat too little, drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or yell at someone. All these behaviors are performed as a reaction to a muscle tension inside the body. Once it is released, the behavior stops as there is no need to continue it. The technique I found helps to resolve a muscle spasm and stops anxiety in this way. Therefore the story is not important.
The technique of dissolving body sensations can be used for various feelings that are making life more difficult. For example, I dissolved a body sensation related to the desire of having a good looking car and I am now very happy with my 10 year old Toyota. It is a very reliable car but it doesn’t look good any more. I felt a growing need to buy a new one only for that reason. Then I realized that this feeling is just another feeling I can dissolve. I detected a sensation in my body related to wanting a new car, and I successfully dissolved it. Now I am very happy with my Toyota and I do not need to work longer and harder to buy a new one.
I successfully dissolved so called ‘Sunday evening blues’ and the frustration of having to return to work after holidays. I also dissolved the Guilt of not coming to work when I felt really ill. It was stopping me from waiting for full recovery before returning to work and making my life more difficult.
The same technique can be used to stop worry about future or past events. When the present life is affected by a traumatic event from the past, like a car accident, and someone still feels upset about it, one can dissolve this feeling by using the exercise. The traumatic event will still be remembered but it will not trigger upsetting feelings any more. If someone feels anxious about something which is going to happen, like a coming exam or important presentation, one can dissolve this feeling using the exercise. This enhances confidence and readiness to perform.