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Anxiety: A Tool to Help You Disengage

Image of Ferris wheel in an old city plaza.

Anxiety is something that has become all too common in our modern world, and is something many of us do not enjoy.

Can you think of anyone who appreciates the dread and worry that comes from paying extra attention to an uncomfortable situation? For some people, it can even have a physical element, from headaches and upset stomachs to all out panic attacks.

Disengaging from the discomfort of anxiety can be as simple as breathing, when you know what you need to do and when. First, we have to know a few things about feelings. Feelings are also called emotions…energy in motion.


An event occurs:

  1. There is a physical response

  2. You process the event in your thoughts

  3. There is an evaluation of the meaning of the event

These steps happen in a flash. The process bypasses the conscious mind and occurs without your awareness. As you evaluate the event it will increase or decrease the feelings. In turn, those feelings will increase or decrease the physical response.


How your body reacts is based on the fight or flight instinct. It is a primitive, unconscious response whose sole purpose is to keep you alive. Fortunately, most of us do not live in an environment where our lives are threatened; however, our bodies do not know that.

When this instinct is activated, your heart beats faster and you are flooded with adrenaline. You are in a state of heightened alert, and your body is in reaction mode.


You label this body response as anxiety and, if intense enough, a panic attack may occur. You are now in a self-fueling state. The mind triggers the body’s response and will increase the chemicals necessary to become more alert. People who are thrill seekers call this reaction a “high” and they work to create it.


These same physical symptoms happen when you are excited or filled with positive anticipation. The difference is how you interpret what is happening in your body.

An example of this would be riding a Ferris Wheel. The event creates similar sensations in everyone – anticipation of waiting in line, body tingling, heart racing, stomach dropping as you wheel takes you on the downward journey. The difference comes in the meaning each person assigns to this set of sensations.

If you enjoy Ferris Wheels, the anticipation is a happy feeling, almost giddy, as you wait in line for a ride that will create this excitement. It is a fun and positive experience.

Others who ride a Ferris Wheel are terrified. The same situation sends signals of danger and dread. The anticipation is worrisome, or worse. They are terrified, Same event, same body sensations, yet they can create different experiences depending on how you interpret the signals you receive from your body.

When you are in this state, your conscious mind is disconnected from your body. That means you are disconnected from personal insight and empathy as well. To put it in the words of Daniel J. Siegel, MD., a leading innovator in integrating brain science and psychotherapy, “you have lost your mind.” You cannot think your way out of this physical state.


Unresolved events and memories can complicate the way we respond to events and feelings. Situations can activate old events, and the body will respond according to what happened in the past, rather than the present.

For example, a woman was home when her house caught fire. It was traumatic; she stood outside her house watching smoke and flames coming out of the windows. The fire engine arrived with flashing lights and the siren blaring.

Immediately after the fire, when she was driving and heard a siren, she would have to pull off the road because of the intensity of her emotional and physical response. As the months went by, the memories were processed and she became less reactive to the sound. Eventually, she was able to hear a siren and not even think about her fire experience.

This reaction came from a known event. There are times, though, when we may have a reaction from an unknown event. For example, while out trick or treating with my grandchildren on Halloween, I saw a woman who I knew. She likes me and knows I am safe.

For the occasion, I had painted my face and looked rather fierce. She was able to acknowledge who I was, but backed away in fear. She is afraid of masks. I could see all the signs of a flight response. She told me she was having trouble breathing, which is a typical fear response. I suggested she take some deep breaths, that it would help her. She looked at me like I had lost my mind and walked away.


Breathing is one of the ways you can disconnect your brain from your body and regain your ability to think rather than react. You want to do two things at moments like this.

Get more oxygen to your brain and body, and give your mind something to occupy it.

The following breathing exercise will both get oxygen to your brain and occupy it.

  1. Breathe in to a count of 2, breathe out to a count of 2

  2. Breathe in to a count of 4, breathe out to a count of 4

  3. Breathe in to a count of 6, breathe out to a count of 6

  4. Breathe in to a count of 8, breathe out to a count of 8

  5. Return to step 1 and continue the breathing exercise as long as necessary.

This exercise works because you have to think about how many breaths you are taking each time you breathe. That causes you to move into a thinking mode, and brings much-needed oxygen to the brain and body.

Why not try this exercise before you get involved in the rest of your day. Notice how it makes you feel. Practice it in the next few days ,and when you need it to calm yourself down it will be in your tool box.


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