How to Relax -- Help for Anxiety and Panic Attacks

The reality is, some of us live in a world where we need to learn how to relax! Relaxation is a natural, bodily process which keeps us functioning in an optimal way: emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The page, Tips for Coping With Stress, describes anxiety, how it originates, and ways to cope with it. This page gives you some ideas for how to reduce tension in your daily life. It also describes hyperventilation syndrome, which results in the uncomfortable symptoms of a panic attack.

As with any physical symptom, please check with your doctor to rule out any medical cause for your anxiety. Although there are few physical disorders that result in panic-like symptoms, there are some, and you need to rule those out before finding help here!

Hyperventilation Syndrome: I Feel Like I'm Going to Die! (Panic)

Of course, we'll all die at some time or another. For people in the throes of hyperventilation, death feels as though it will arrive at any moment. People suffering from hyperventilation syndrome (I'll abbreviate it as HVS) feel a variety of things. First: mild disorientation, dizziness, feelings of unreality, and/or lightheadedness. Next: heart pounding, racing heart, sweating palms, breaking out in a sweat all over, 'hot flashes,' nausea, feelings of dread, fear of death or fainting or going crazy, claustrophobia (for example, 'if only I can get out of here and get home I'll be okay'), feelings of suffocation/not being able to get enough air. Last: tunnel vision, actually fainting.

In normal breathing, one breathes in about the same amount of oxygen as one exhales carbon dioxide. (Carbon dioxide is a byproduct of metabolizing oxygen). Hyperventilation means that you are breathing in more oxygen than you need. You are actually taking in more oxygen than you are exhaling carbon dioxide. Therefore, carbon dioxide builds up in your blood. This happens when you take quick, shallow breaths without the accompanying physical exertion that would require more oxygen. And you have no idea you are doing it!

Our ancient ancestors needed the ability to quickly escape from predators and other threats, and to quickly respond to a fleeing animal when hunting. The 'fight-or-flight' response enabled early humans to perform these tasks. In modern day life, we rarely need such a dramatic physical response. Chasing the dog at the beach doesn't require quite the same level of physiological readiness as did running from a charging animal! Nevertheless, our bodies haven't evolved out of the fight-or-flight response. Anxiety triggers the hyperventilation/fight-or-flight response in our bodies, and unless we restore the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance quickly, the symptoms will increase until we pass out and automatically begin breathing normally again!

Tips for Coping With Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Once you've had a physical and your doctor has determined your anxiety is not due to a medical disorder, he or she might prescribe anti-anxiety drugs. These drugs are designed to block the fight-or-flight response, as well as more generalized anxiety.

Other techniques you might try follow. You might let those close to you know you are suffering from anxiety, and that you may need help staying with these when the moment arises:

For panic...

Breathing into a paper bag. Although you might be embarrassed to try this, once you begin to notice panic rising, pull out a paper bag and breathe into it, slowly, in and out, for a minute or two (you are filling the bag with carbon dioxide and thereby reducing the amount of oxygen you're breathing).

Slowing your breath. Count your breath. Breathe in to a count of four, hold your breath for four, breath out to a count of four. If this is difficult for you, understand that you have been hyperventilating! Work up to a count of six, six, and six. Do this for two or three minutes. Remember, actually you have too much oxygen, so regulating your breathing can only help you.

Read a book. Some excellent books for help coping with anxiety attacks are Claire Weekes' "Self-Help for Your Nerves," and "Peace From Nervous Suffering."

For general anxiety...

Relax your body. It is not possible to feel anxious when your body is fully relaxed! Therefore, progressively tensing and relaxing each part of your body, while breathing in and out slowly as described above, will help you reduce anxiety.

Nourish your spirit. People with a spiritual practice tend to report experiencing less stress in their daily lives. Explore religious or spiritual practices and communities that interest you, either by attending services or reading books. "The Best Spiritual Writing of..." yearly series can be inspiring.

Visualize. Calm your mind by imagining yourself in a place you love and that soothes you. Imagine every detail of the place, including how relaxed you are when you are there.

Books on relaxation abound. Many of them have soothing pictures in them, too!

Read Tips for Coping With Stress.

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