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Anxiety Surfing and Facing Your Fears

Aug 15, 2018

Everybody experiences anxiety because it is a normal bodily response to threat or danger. The experience of anxiety can become problematic if it starts to interfere with your day-to-day functioning.

Everybody experiences anxiety because it is a normal bodily response to threat or danger. The feelings associated with anxiety reflect the changes our bodies undergo during the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is designed to protect it from danger. Interestingly, your body responds exactly the same way whether you are just thinking about or in the actual presence of danger.

Anxiety manifests itself through three separate bodily areas, any one of which can be dominant in a particular individual.

The mental area: this includes the effects on your thoughts, e.g. catastrophizing (overestimating the likelihood and/or severity of a negative outcome), and narrowed focus on the source of threat (losing a sense of perspective).

The physical area: this includes the physical sensations inside your body, e.g. dizziness, sweaty hands, thumping heart and breathlessness.

The behavioural area: this includes what we do when we are anxious, e.g. pacing, foot tapping and escaping from or avoiding the situation.

The experience of anxiety can become problematic if it starts to interfere with your day-to-day functioning, such as if it escalates into frequent panic attacks, or leads to avoidance of places or activities where anxiety has been experienced in the past.

What are Panic Attacks?

A panic attack is a sudden, abrupt burst of acute anxiety, often described as coming out of the blue, and intensifying very quickly. When a person experiences these unexpected intense bodily sensations they often believe something terrible is happening to them, such as having a heart attack, dying, losing control, fainting or collapsing. These worries lead to greater anxiety, thus further intensifying the anxiety symptoms, creating an intensifying cycle of panic.

Avoidance of places or activities that are perceived to have triggered intense anxiety and/or panic attacks can be a natural (but problematic) response to this experience. Repeated avoidance can lead to less and less confidence about your ability to handle those situations, and may eventually limit the places and activities that you engage in, thus restricting your life.

What to do when you feel anxious?

1. Surf the feelings.

The best thing to do is to try to ride the physical feelings like a wave. Nothing will make them pass faster than accepting them. Fighting them, pushing them away or distracting yourself can increase your fear or anxiety and give it more power. To surf the feelings, tell yourself what is actually happening. Describe each of your physical feelings to yourself.

2. Remind yourself:

• That the purpose of the fight or flight response is to protect you.

• Why you are feeling this way (your fight or flight response and your catastrophic thoughts)

• That all episodes of anxiety pass eventually.

• That an episode of anxiety will not harm you.

3. Try to notice what you are thinking and check if it is actually happening.

• If you are worrying about your heart stopping, then each minute that passes with you alive indicates that it is not.

• If you are thinking that you cannot breathe, each breath you take, no matter how difficult, indicates you can.

• If you are thinking that you are making a fool of yourself, make sure you look at other people so you can see if they are even noticing what you are doing.

4. Give yourself plenty of time. Try not to rush to get anxiety over with.

5. Don’t use any safety behaviour, don’t flee or run, and don’t distract yourself.

Be exact with yourself - you are trying to separate how you feel, from what you think or fear is happening. Anxiety surfing is difficult but it is the best thing to do. Many find it difficult at first, but it will become easier with practice.

Adapted from: Baillie A & Rapee R. Panic Surfing: a self-treatment workbook for panic disorders. Sydney, 1998.