I work as a family doctor and I often see patients complaining of anxiety and panic attacks. At one time, my local counselling service was very slow and the only help I could offer those people was 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 had to find a way to help them during my appointments. I had 10 minutes for one patient and I quickly realized that it was impossible to have a lengthy discussion about anxiety within this time. Problems related to anxiety were always complicated and took time to explain.
I had to find a method of helping them without listening to the story.
I started researching it and I was surprised to learn that there are quite a few such methods around. I tried one of them on my friends and my family and I found it very effective. It did not suit everyone, but there was a good number of people reporting a significant improvement. And it really did not matter what they were anxious about. The story was not important. What mattered was HOW they knew they were anxious.
THIS IS HOW I HELP MY PATIENTS TO REALIZE HOW ANXIETY WORKS
First I ask them to become anxious about this ‘thing’ while they sit in front of me. It is usually very easy. Then I ask them to grade the anxiety on a scale from one to ten. It takes a few moments. Once the number is decided I ask them 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 that triggers the anxiety. At the same time, you sense the physical tension growing somewhere in your body, like a 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.’
THEN I EXPLAIN MORE
A physical sensation related to anxiety is caused by a spasm of a specific group of muscles and helps us to recognize how we feel.
For example, muscle spasm can be felt as:
Tight band over the head – this is caused by a tension of muscles located on the skull. Longterm tension of these muscles can cause tension headaches. It is because a cramped muscle cuts itself from a regular blood supply and becomes unhealthy.
Lump in the throat – it 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 public speaking, and eating in public places.
Butterflies in the stomach – it is a spasm of muscles which are in the bowels. These muscles are used to push swallowed food down along the digestive system. They form something called a peristaltic wave. It has to be very precisely coordinated. Anxiety makes the peristaltic wave very chaotic, causing poorly digested food to become stuck in the bowels. After some time it ferments (like a compost in the garden) and starts releasing gases which have nowhere to go, causing us to feel bloated. This is how Irritable Bowel Syndrome starts.
Knot in the stomach – knot in the stomach is caused by tension of the diaphragm, which is a flat group of muscles dividing our body into to a chest and an abdomen. The diaphragm is the main muscle we use for breathing. When anxiety is located in the diaphragm it does not move properly we can feel short of breath, lightheaded, or faint. Extreme tension of the diaphragm is responsible for panic attacks.
.You can watch a clip below to understand it better.
The only thing left is to show them how they can relax the cramped group of muscles and dissolve their anxiety. This is when I lead my patients through the dissolving anxiety exercise you can find here.
WHAT ELSE CAN IT DO?
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 anymore. 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 then 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, 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 anymore.
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.