Drowning in stress and anxiety?
Here’s how to get safely back to shore.
By Todd Kaufman REGISTERED PSYCHOTHERAPIST
It’s not uncommon that a new patient will meet with me for the first time and feel completely overwhelmed. By the time they’ve booked an appointment to manage their anxiety arrive in my office, it can feel much like they’re drowning in anxiety.
And because these folks have often been trying to manage their anxiety on their own for so long, they’re frequently very high functioning. Their capacity to mask the frenzied panic happening in their head is quite remarkable. Even at an initial therapy appointment, they can present as calm, good listeners, and ready to learn. Yet below the surface, their anxiety is raging and making it almost impossible to focus.
Anxiety Can Feel Like Drowning
Many, many years ago, I helped put myself through my undergraduate by working as a lifeguard. One of the things we were both taught and bore witness to in this role is the surprising demeanour of drowning people. It’s not like in the movies. There’s often no splashing or screaming or look of horror on their face. They may simply be bobbing above and below the surface of the water with minimal struggle apparent. If you were close enough to see their face, they often have a glazed-over or catatonic look. It’s not the look of somebody about to die. It can take a great deal of training and experience even to notice someone who’s drowning right in front of you.
When anxiety gets really bad, it can feel like you’re drowning. And just like someone drowning in a pool or the ocean, both their learned skills to mask their internal anxiety and the same system which comes into play with someone who’s physically drowning kicks in. This learned and practiced demeanour often results in the almost impossible task of recognizing that the person in front of you is quite literally feeling like they are taking their last breath. They can feel like they’re drowning inside and still look entirely together on the outside.
High Functioning Anxiety is the Great Imposter
Recently, I had a new client present with high functioning anxiety. They were at the edge and feeling like they were drowning – so overwhelmed that it was almost impossible for them to process the information I was sharing. They were a young brilliant university student, and their major was salient to the work we needed to do. I was quite excited to assure them we could move through this quickly and effectively. I provided them with the information I knew would make perfect sense to them as to why they could overcome this dysregulating anxiety. I missed that they were drowning. By all accounts, they were incredibly successful, and as we chatted, they presented as brilliant, rational, and both eager and curious to overcome this challenge.
At the end of our initial session, they said, “Todd, I think everything you said probably makes sense, but I’m not even sure I heard any of it.” At this moment, their sense of both panic and despair surfaced. And, as happens too often in therapy, our session had to end as my next patient was waiting.
It was a rare miss that required a quick save. Fortunately, they were engaged enough to recognize the value of the Anxiety Release Protocol (ARP) I presented and booked their next appointment. Quick follow-up could ensure they weren’t going to drown.
How to Help Yourself End a Panic Attack
So when you’re in deep water and feel like you’re drowning in anxiety, how can you initiate a rescue?
Let’s get very, very practical. Here’s a proven technique that can be your lifeline back to the shore. On solid ground, you can learn to manage these feelings.
Let’s get your feet on solid ground so you can breathe that sigh of relief:
1. Take a moment to acknowledge that you feel like you’re drowning, but in fact, you’re standing on solid ground. Look down at your feet and notice you are on solid ground. Try and feel the pressure where your feet meet the ground or where your bum meets your seat.
2. Now take firm hold of those lifelines there in front of you. Name, out loud, three objects you see here on dry land. Name three things that you can hear. And name three things that you can smell.
(This quick practical exercise assures your brain that you are indeed on solid ground and won’t be drowned.)
3. And last, take charge of your breathing through a simple little exercise I called “Square Breathing.”
Imagine a long skinny horizontal box that stretches from one side of the horizon to the other.
Face either lower corner of that box, and with that deep huge inhale, trace the outline of this box up to its top corner. Now, very slowly, exhale entirely as you move your whole body, rotating across the entire horizon to reach the other far top corner of the box. Exhale very slowly, and don’t stop until you have entirely exhaled and reached the far corner.
Now, once again, take a deep huge inhale as you trace the far side of the rectangle down below the horizon. Again, using your whole body, exhale extremely slowly as you trace the lower portion of the rectangle back to your starting point.
Repeat this Square Breathing five times or more if you’d like.
There’s some solid physiology here – have you ever noticed when you come out of a pretty exciting or charged event, and it is suddenly over, you let out a “sigh of relief?“ This deep exhale is your body‘s way of lowering your stress hormones. Your long, slow exhales in Square Breathing mimic this process, thus directing your body to reduce your stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Lower stress hormones, less Anxiety and panicky feelings.
Regulated Anxiety is a Lifesaver
Anxiety is an evolutionary response designed to get your attention and trigger you to act safely. Without anxiety, we would likely not make it through a typical day. When people seek help for anxiety that feels out of control, it is often an ingrained habit of sorts. Breaking habits that our brain perceives as fulfilling our need for safety can be difficult without expert guidance and coaching.
How Do I Get Help?
You don’t have to live in a perpetual high anxiety state. After working with thousands of people with high anxiety and mastering this challenge myself, I developed the Anxiety Release Protocol (ARP). ARP helps you quickly, and effectivity minimizes those uncomfortable feelings, allowing you to return your anxiety response back to its helpful and functional state. Book an appointment, and let’s get you started. You deserve to move past these feelings and onto a happy and stress-free life.
Appointments can be booked online at www.TheAnxiety.Clinic
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“Fear is a very natural response,” said Kaufman, who specializes in treating anxiety disorders at his Toronto-based clinic.