Anxiety · panic attacks · panic disorder · Stress

Self-regulation : Breaking cycles of anxiety, stress and panic

Self-regulation is the ability to manage distressing emotions and destructive impulses, by pausing before you react to situations likely to trigger a knee-jerk response. This is particularly useful if you are prone to bouts of anxiety, OCD or angry outbursts. During the moment of the pause you may choose to step back and reflect, or monitor the flow of sensations and feeling states in your body.

For example, your heart rate, breathing, body temperature, irritation, muscle tremors, perspiration, dry mouth, levels of tension or relaxation etc. You may also begin to notice the levels of intensity in your emotions, as they ebb and flow. Or identify the triggers which set them off and the quality of the sensations as you are experiencing in the present moment. This helps us to become more self-aware, more accepting or tolerant of our emotional states and to stop unhelpful behaviour, while keeping calmer under pressure. We may then decide which actions to take that will alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, depression, addiction and trauma or even panic attacks.

Many people who suffer from intense emotional surges, usually go through a repetitive cycle of peaks and troughs – where spikes in emotion quickly overwhelm them or coincide with impulsive behaviours; whilst the troughs lead to a sense of instant relief or a sudden downward spiral in emotion. This is an extremely stressful way to live your life, although it is commonly addictive and compulsive, as people often seem to get a temporary buzz out of the highs and lows.

For example, highs might be achieved through excitement, risky behaviour, extreme sport and fitness regimes, high levels of performance at work or even drugs and alcohol. Lows might be achieved through experiencing avoidance behaviours, depressive states, exhaustion or tiredness, alcohol. This means that people unconsciously rely on emotional extremes, self-medication or codependency in relationships to support their everyday routines.

The trick is to noticing it is happening. Switching off your auto-pilot and learning to become aware of how your mind and body operate. This means becoming intimately aware of your physical sensations, five senses and emotional states without over-thinking or analysing them.

Often this involves becoming aware of them at low levels of stimulus, such as noticing restlessness long before irritation or anger, noticing nervous tics long before anxiety kicks in, or noticing levels of discomfort long before pain sets in. Then to take a mental pause as you step back and break out of the cycle. As you do so, you turn your attention to your sensations, and hold that awareness, turning back to your sensations each time the mind wanders off into a train of thought. You try to monitor the quality of your experience objectively, without judging whether the experience is necessarily good or bad, positive or negative. Simply noticing that they are there.

Sometimes at the lower levels of stimulus or stress, you will automatically sense a change in the quality of that experience and regulate the emotion without doing anything at all. Sometimes you may need to respond by taking action, when dealing with a higher intensity feeling or emotion, by self-soothing, breathing, exercising or dealing with the source of the distress. For example when you are tense or angry, it is better to use mindfulness of breathing. When you are restless or anxious it is better to use fast walking or swimming exercises to relief stress. When you can’t sleep due to racing thoughts it is better to use a pleasurable stimuli like music, a shower or a massage to self-soothe and fall asleep. Take regular breaks throughout the day to rehydrate, take lunch, go to the toilet and get out of the office for a walk or rest in a quiet, beautiful natural setting like a park, by the river or a chapel.

This means continuously attending to the body and mind’s needs, by taking breaks from prolonged periods of work, rest and play, and then pausing a while to notice what is happening to the quality of your lived experience. Being in the moment. This will help you to deactivate stress, take breaks, rest awhile, relax or relieve yourself of the symptoms of unwanted psychological states such as fear, anxiety and anger. You will slowly learn to self-regulate a bit like a thermostat learns to regulate intense temperatures so that the boiler doesn’t blow, rather than allow the pressure to build up before you burst or crumple into a heap.

Living life at the extremes is just unhelpful and unhealthy, whatever the short-term rush is, or however, good immediate gratification feels it never lasts. Do not fall into the trap of believing that the rush of stress makes you more alert, more productive, more efficient, a better predictor or problem-solver. These are short-term rewards which are better served when you have clarity of vision, feel more confident and move towards your destination or goal step-by-step. Burnout, nervous breakdowns, depression and panic attacks are often the product of never attending to our needs in the present moment.

Greg Savva

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