Coping with Anxiety

The Nature of Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal and healthy reaction that allows you to deal with threat or danger. When we are confronted by a threatening situation our brain automatically releases hormones which send signals to the body to prepare to ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. We become more alert, our heartbeat speeds up, the muscles get tense ready for action, sweating increases to cool the body, and breathing rate speeds up so that we can get oxygen into our bodies more quickly. These changes allow us to run very quickly or fight our enemies. Sometimes when our breathing rate increases, we tend to over breathe or hyperventilate. This hyperventilation may cause a number of symptoms including dizziness, breathlessness or chest pains. It is important to realise that these feelings are part of a physical response to threat and are not a sign that you have some physical disease. These symptoms do not mean that you will die, go crazy, or lose control.

Management of Anxiety

Although anxiety is a normal, and at times, a useful response, excessive anxiety may interfere with your everyday life. Anxiety can be managed by reversing or interrupting the fight-or-flight response through the use of breathing or relaxation techniques. To reduce symptoms of hyperventilation it is necessary to increase and steady the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. One method to do this is breathing into a paper bag. Another method to reduce over breathing and to prevent anxiety from escalating is the slow breathing exercise (see below). This exercise can be practiced daily and used at any time that you notice sensations of anxiety.

Breathing Exercise

1. Hold your breath and count to 5 (do not take a deep breath).
2. When you get to 5, breathe out and say the word ‘relax’ in a calm soothing manner.
3. Breathe in and out slowly through your nose in a 6 second cycle (breathe in for 3 seconds & out for 3 seconds). This will produce a breathing rate of 10 breaths per minute. Say ‘relax’ to yourself when you breathe out.
4. At the end of each minute hold your breath for 5 seconds and then continue breathing using the 6 second cycle
5. Continue breathing this way until all of the symptoms of over breathing have gone.

Exposure Treatment for Anxiety

If your anxiety is associated with specific objects or situations (such as spiders or dirt/germs) it is also possible to reduce anxiety through exposure to the feared object or situation. It is important to remain in the feared situation until there is a decrease in anxiety. Although your anxiety may rise when confronting the situation, it will also fall within a few minutes. By remaining in the situation you will learn that there is nothing to fear.

What do I do if I am experiencing high levels of anxiety during the treatment?

If your anxiety becomes overwhelming when you are completing the treatment, try to remain calm and do the above breathing exercise. Remember your anxiety will fall in a few minutes. You may like to enlist the help of a friend or relative, by showing them this information, they may be able to assist you should the need arise. If you are hyperventilating and the breathing exercise does not help, you may like to have a paper bag handy that you can breathe into. This will help to stop you over breathing.

What if I need further help or treatment?

Please note that this information is NOT a substitute for diagnosis and treatment by a health professional. The Discipline of Psychiatry, University of Tasmania, is not a health or crisis service and does not have the capacity to provide clinical advice or assistance if you require these services. If you need urgent medical or psychological assistance, please contact your local doctor/GP or other health professional, or the emergency department of your local hospital.