What do you do when feeling anxious or scared gets in the way of ordinary life?
So you survived the earthquake, but now you can feel the panic stir when you walk into a high rise building. Your palms go clammy, your breathing speeds up, your throat goes tight and your mouth is dry. Your gut clenches and churns. You feel your heart pounding as if you’ve run up the street you now wish you could run right back down.
If another aftershock rolls through about now you probably feel the skin prickle up the back of your neck and you feel like your hair is standing on end.
Your thoughts are in a whirl. “This is crazy, what am I doing? I’ve seen what can happen, what if there’s another big one while I’m inside? It’s going to be ugly. I might not make it this time, I feel so scared I want to be sick, I can’t do this”
Anxiety feels pretty awful, and for good reason. It’s your nervous system sending you a warning. It wants to get your attention and it does that by setting off the physical symptoms of fear. If you just ignore those symptoms, your nervous system thinks you haven’t got the message, so it turns up the volume, and your feeling of alarm increases.
When someone tells you to calm down you think -“What do you mean calm down? I’m not making it up am I – its all real.”
And you’re quite right. You are reacting to real events and possible threats. Your fear makes perfect sense. But fear can be completely logical, without doing you much good. The question is how helpful is that fear for you right now?
The value of the fear is to alert you to risks so you can keep yourself safe. But when the fear gets in your way instead – when it stops you sleeping, has you jumping at the slightest sound, and prevents you doing the things you need to do to get your life back into some kind of order – then the fear stops being useful and protective.
So what can you do to ease that fear, to do what you need to do without worry making your life a misery?
Watch what you say to yourself. When you tell yourself it’s awful and hard and crazy, you wind yourself up. You add to the worry. Instead you need to give yourself a calming and encouraging talk.
Focus on calm, positive thoughts. Trying to not think about something doesn’t usually work. It just creates a vacuum for the anxiety to fill up. You’re better to distract yourself from the fear, by actively focusing on something that is calming and positive.
So when you’re heading for the tall building you might go “Today I’m going to see Ms Jones on level 4. She will help sort out my insurance claim so I’ll be one step closer to getting my home fixed.”
Steady even breathing helps to settle the physical responses to fear. When something sets your worry going – perhaps choosing level 4 in the lift – focus on keeping your breathing slow and even. Try breathing in to the count of 4, pause for 4 and breathe out to the count of 4. It will help you steady yourself. If you manage your breathing it will reduce the other physical feelings like sweating and your heart pounding.
Normal routines are useful. Seeing the kids off to school, setting off to work, planning dinner, early nights, - they all help things feel more settled. Prolonged stress can make the most placid people jumpy, and people in the Christchurch area have had more than enough stress in the last half year. Whatever the situation you are now living in – anything you can do to create predictable routines and make it ordinary will help to reduce the overall level of anxiety you have to deal with.
Company is a comfort. When you are on your own with fears, they tend to have more of a grip on you. If you share them, just talk about them a little, it helps to put them in some more manageable kind of perspective. Talking doesn’t change real risks and difficulties, but it can make them easier to live with.
At least in Christchurch, wherever you turn, there will be other people feeling similar fears who know what you’re talking about.
If you can’t find someone you feel comfortable to talk with, maybe your close connections have moved away, or maybe you’ve left town yourself, you can talk to counsellors at any of our offices around the country.