In his thirties, Jake stepped down from his job, feeling too stressed to continue. One day his wife said that she would take the kids out so he could have the house to himself and he thought it was a great opportunity to spend some time alone to reflect on his next steps.
Once he celebrated having the house to himself, Jake settled in for some self-reflection. Immediately, his heart began to race, he felt physically ill, he began to sweat, and his thoughts began to spiral uncontrollably. “What if I can’t find another good job?” “What if I do find something but can’t handle it?” “Are people going to think that I’m a failure?” This was his first panic attack – though not his last in the weeks to come.
These kinds of experiences are debilitating, leaving us feeling crippled with fear, and unable to move forward with purpose and meaning. Anxiety is not typically a choice people make. It is an autonomic response to a real or perceived threat. Jake did not choose to have a panic attack; rather as he began to reflect on what his future might hold, his thoughts and fears began to overwhelm him, physically as well as mentally.
When our anxiety is triggered, it is because the amygdala (part of the brain's limbic system), has kicked in to warn us of danger. The amygdala is a group of cells that interprets the emotional meaning of everything that happens to you. If the amygdala interprets something as threatening, it sends messages to another part of the brain called the hypothalamus, which controls the release of hormones into the body to get you ready for a fight-flight-freeze response. The fight-flight-freeze response is what happens when our bodies tense up, become more alert, and ready for action to either escape (flight), defend ourselves (fight), or freeze. This automatic response triggers before we can think. When we are functioning in this state, we are not able to access the frontal lobe, the part of the brain where we can make rational, well-thought-out decisions.
Returning to Jake’s story, he feels overwhelmed with worry about his future, his amygdala is screaming at him, keeping him in the anxious spiral, but simple tools such as deep breathing, taking a brisk walk or distracting himself with music can help Jake re-engage his frontal lobe. At that point, he can start to regain control by challenging his negative thoughts with a few questions:
Question: “Have people actually said that they think that I am a failure?”
Answer: “No one has said that.”
Question: “Is it true that I will not be able to handle the demands of another high-pressure job?”
Answer: “This experience has taught me some things about how I handle stress and ways I can put supports in place so I can manage some of those things better.”
Question: “What if I can’t find another good job?”
Answer: “It might take a while and it might not be perfect, but I am employable. Maybe this isn’t so hopeless.”
These types of questions will help Jake reengage his logical side and help increase his ability think rationally. Then he can move forward, no longer paralyzed by fear. For those who become overwhelmed by their anxious thoughts, it can be difficult to find a way out of that heightened state on our own. There are helpful resources to help people with anxiety such as psychotherapy, support groups or even doctor-prescribed medication to help people like Jake manage their anxiety.
If you are struggling with anxiety, you are not alone and there is help to take back control.