If the events of the past two years left you wanting to permanently retire to your blanket fort, you aren’t alone. Uncertainty continues swirling in the air as desperately as people seek a return to normalcy.
However, it’s perfectly acceptable to behave slightly off if you feel panicked. Stress hormones perform an intricate dance with your neurotransmitters, resulting in fluctuating moods. Here are three reasons you should be gentle to yourself when in the throes of anxiety.
1. It’s Not You — It’s Your HPA Axis
Reflect on the physical symptoms of an anxiety attack — your palms grow sweaty, you shake and your heart rate increases. Even though your panic might stem from runaway thoughts, your body keeps the score and displays the evidence. It’s the principle behind lie detectors — mental stress manifests itself in measurable ways.
You should be gentle with yourself when in the throes of anxiety because there’s a physiological basis for how you feel. Your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA axis refers to the three glands that kick into gear when you experience stress. Your sympathetic nervous system mediates this response, which entails releasing epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine.
About ten seconds later, your HPA axis activates, telling your adrenal glands to secrete cortisol. This substance helps the body recover from stress lasting longer than a few minutes but can cause severe health problems in excess. When you have chronic stress or repeated trauma, your body becomes inured to this hormone’s effects, causing more and more to flood your system.
People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex PTSD (CPTSD) often have an overactive HPA axis. Think of it like someone who runs every day, getting faster and stronger with time. The more you use this pathway, the more likely you are to react when you encounter minor stressors, like traffic. Yes — you improve at overreacting, crying, perhaps even cursing over spilled milk.
Therefore, be gentle with yourself if you had a traumatic childhood, experienced domestic violence as an adult or had other life experiences that left you shaken. Your body is simply doing what you unwittingly trained it to do.
That doesn’t mean you have to let panic run rickshaw over your psyche. Learn techniques such as deep breathing and mindfulness to stop attacks in their tracks. For example, 2-to-1 breathing, in which you exhale twice as long as you inhale, activates your parasympathetic nervous system and helps restore a sense of calm.
2. You Can Trigger Yourself
It might be the ultimate injustice if you survived prior trauma — you can unwittingly trigger yourself. That’s because your extreme reactions don’t only stem from environmental factors, such as hearing a loud noise that reminds you of gunfire. They can also well up from within when you experience similar emotions to the last time you found yourself helpless or trapped in an inescapable scenario.
For example, news of a rent increase can wreak psychological havoc if you’ve battled homelessness in the past. You might have sufficient funds to move somewhere new this time. However, you could break down while packing boxes because the sense of being David against an impossible Goliath leaves you in abject terror, emotionally in the exact place as you were when you had nowhere to go.
Recognizing that your emotions can also trigger you can transform your life. You might not understand why seemingly trivial events — like the stress of getting stuck behind a slow driver — drive you into furious frenzies or downward spirals of despair. When you connect how you feel with not getting to the hospital on time to say goodbye to a dying loved one, your reaction makes more sense, helping you control it.
3. You Wouldn’t Treat a Friend That Way
If your best friend came to you in tears, panicked over a potential job loss or breakup, would you tell them, “Oh, quit bellyaching. You’re getting all upset over nothing.” Probably not.
You’d invite them to share what happened and process their feelings, then look for a reasonable solution together if you thought it was appropriate. However, how often do you similarly gaslight yourself, poo-poohing your fears and stuffing your emotions down until you explode — often causing a bigger mess than the one you originally faced?
Treat yourself the way you would your BFF when you find yourself in the throes of anxiety. Take the time to sit in meditation and discover what your emotions are trying to tell you. Remember, feelings alone can’t hurt you — it’s letting them drive you to maladaptive thoughts and behaviors that get you in trouble.
Imagine yourself as an objective third party. What advice would you give yourself? Please take as much time as you need if you aren’t up against a deadline. It isn’t always easy to figure out what your feelings are trying to tell you — but it’s worth it.
Comfort yourself, too. If your BFF were going through an anxiety-provoking experience, you’d wrap them in hugs, bring them special meals and do little things to make them smile. Treat yourself to the same indulgences. Whip up your favorite comfort dish and settle in for a Netflix binge. Invest in a new yoga mat and check out a new yin class to calm your central nervous system.
Be Gentle to Yourself in the Throes of Anxiety
Your body goes through distinct physiological changes when you experience panic. Therefore, you shouldn’t deny or denigrate your experience. Doing so makes a bad situation worse, potentially triggering emotions similar to past traumas you’ve survived. Instead, be gentle to yourself in the throes of anxiety and treat yourself like you would your best friend.