Along with depression, anxiety is top of the list of mental health issues in England. According to the survey, run by the charity Mind, 5.9 in every 100 people suffered from anxiety and 7.8 in every 100 suffered from mixed anxiety and depression.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is related to the “fight or flight” response (or “fight, flight or freeze” to be more accurate). This is a natural response by the body to anything that it perceives to be a threat. Thousands of years ago, when humans were mostly living in caves and being hunted by sabre-tooth tigers and the like, it was a much more important response. If you detected something that could be a threat, even if you weren’t fully consciously aware of it, your brain would start to produce extra quantities of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These would give you an extra boost to be able to battle the threat (fight), run away from it (flight) or stay extremely still and hope it got went away (freeze). Anxiety back then could be helpful, because it would be keeping you on a high state of alert until the danger had truly passed.
But I’m not being chased by tigers…
In today’s world, instead of tigers, your brain can latch on to other things that it perceives to be threats and produce the same response. Maybe it’s speaking in public, or going new places, or perhaps trying something new. Hundreds of different things can be triggers into anxiety in today’s world. Often they can seem ridiculous to the people around you – and maybe even to you at times! It doesn’t make it any less real or less unpleasant to deal with when it’s happening though.
Unfortunately, the part of the brain that controls the “fight, flight or freeze” response is a very old part of the brain (evolutionally). It basically shuts down everything except the absolute essentials for survival – breathing, awareness of the threat, and the chosen method of dealing with it. This could mean that, instead of being able to speaking to a roomful of people in an office meeting, you might:
- Get angry and argumentative (fight)
- Feel sick and want the floor to swallow you up (flight)
- Or find that you can barely even squeak a sound out (freeze).
You can’t reason with yourself until after the danger is passed, so it’s only afterwards that you can think rationally again and think how ridiculous it was. Don’t worry – it’s not actually your fault! In those moments, your brain literally isn’t capable of that level of reasoning.
What can you do to stop it?
Thankfully, there is a really easy trick, that you can use even in those moments, to help you break out of it and think more rationally and clearly. Remember how I said that the brain shuts down everything except those things vital for survival? Breathing is one of those things, and there is a simple technique, called 7-11 breathing, that tricks your brain into thinking you are calm, so it comes out of that anxiety mode. It’s so simple that the whole thing is pretty much included in the name – you breathe in for a count of 7 and out for a count of 11.
Don’t worry if you can’t count that far to begin with. Like most things, it needed a catchy name to be memorable and 7-11 is easier to remember than 4-8 or 3-7! The important bit is that you’re breathing out for longer than you’re breathing in. If you need to start by breathing in for 1 and out for 2 and gradually work your way up from there that’s absolutely fine! If you’re breathing out for longer than you’re breathing in, the brain thinks things are OK. So if you deliberately do it when you’re feeling anxious, it tricks the brain into thinking that the danger has passed.
It might take a bit of work to begin with, but the more you practise it, the easier it becomes. Practise it even when you’re feeling good – it does no harm and it creates a pattern that the brain can fix on to quickly (the brain likes patterns). You’ll soon find that you can get yourself out of an anxious state much more quickly and easily.
How does Hypnotherapy come into this?
The 7-11 breathing exercise is one of the pieces of homework I set any clients that come to me with anxiety. It can feel so much better to just be able to do something rather than nothing at those times, even if that something is just breathing a bit differently. Hypnotherapy can be used to uncover and then reduce or eliminate those things that are triggering you into a state of anxiety, allowing you to stop worrying about what might happen and just enjoy life instead! Please feel free to contact me if you would like to know more.