Heart beats fast, palms sweat, skin flushes, muscles tremble, rapid breathing, butterflies in the stomach,
dizziness, mouth is dry, knees are weak, shivers, irritable bowel, panic feelings, mind goes blank - can't think,
want to run - avoid, racing thoughts, catastrophic thoughts, afraid of going crazy, afraid of dying, afraid of not
returning to normal.
These are symptoms or effects of anxiety. Anxiety feels terrible. Along with emotions like depression, and
anger, anxiety is one of the most difficult emotions that we as humans have to deal with. To make matters worse, we
also can become anxious about being anxious. We become afraid of our own anxiety. We fear that our own anxiety will
hurt us. We fear that we will die or go crazy.
Fight or Flight Response
Anxiety is not something abnormal, it is not a mental illness, it is not a sign
that we are crazy. Anxiety is normal. It is the system in our body that is designed to protect us and to help us
When we face danger our bodies are designed to prepare us to run or fight. It is called the fight - flight
response. The fight - flight response is designed to help us avoid and react to physical danger by either running
or fighting. If we are in danger our impulse is to run away from the danger but if we can not then we will fight
against the threat.
In addition to our built-in defense systems that "help" us to run and or fight when we are
in danger, we learn what to fear. We are born with the ability to learn or be "conditioned" to react to almost
anything that we encounter. We learn to "automatically" react positively to those things that we have experienced
as making us feel good. We learn to "automatically" react negatively to those things that we have experienced as
making us feel bad.
This ability to learn fears is actually a very good thing. We can learn and adapt to our environment and learn
what to fear based on our experiences. Our conditioned fears become automatic and our senses will warn us with
anxiety if we approach a danger.
When Things Go Wrong
Most of the time these defensive mechanisms work very well. Problems however do
occur. At times we learn to fear irrational or not real dangers, these are called phobias. At times we fear social
situations that then because of our anxiety we can not function appropriately.
We can also become afraid of something after a bad experience and then have very high anxiety whenever we are
involved in that activity again. For example if you have had an automobile accident then driving can become very
distressing. Our fears can become out of control and our anxiety becomes what we fear the most.
In our attempt to control our anxiety more serious problems can result:
1. We try to self medicate ourselves and become drug or alcohol addicted.
2. We avoid situations that make us anxious and we severely limit our lives.
3. We lose self esteem and become depressed.
4. We over react and become angry and lash out at others.
5. We damage our relationships, careers, and families.
Learning to Relax
The real good news is that we are able to stop being afraid.
Lets do a demonstration. First - close one of your hands and make a tight fist. Second - open your hand. And now
Third - Open and close your hand at the same time.
Can't do it right? You can not have your hand open and closed at the same time. That is obvious. Well it is also
true and will be obvious that you can not be relaxed and anxious at the same time. So if you can learn to relax,
you can lower and gradually stop your body from being anxious and wanting to run or fight in situations that have
become conditioned as dangerous.
Relaxation is a skill - a skill just like typing or writing. You must teach yourself and your muscles to do
something that is difficult. You must learn to will your self to loosen muscles, slow your breathing, and calm
yourself when you are anxious. Like typing and writing - once you learn you can do it without thinking about it
very much - it becomes easier.
There are many ways to learn to relax. Each person needs to find the way that works for them. Yoga, meditation,
exercise, deep muscle relaxation, bio feedback, breathing exercises, visualization of relaxing mental images,
prayer - the list is almost endless. Many books, audio and video tapes are available commercially to assist in
learning relaxation skills.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
A very effective technique to learn to relax is known as Progressive
Muscle Relaxation. This process was developed by an American physician Edmond Jacobson in 1938.
Learning this relaxation skill involves tightening various muscle groups for a short period of time and then
loosening the muscles. The person progresses through parts of their body such as head, neck, hands, arms,
shoulders, abdomen, legs, feet until he or she has tightened and relaxed each area of the body.
By tightening the muscle groups and holding them tight and then releasing produces a natural relaxation reflex.
While the muscles are loose the individuals task is to "learn" how a loose relaxed muscle feels, later being able
to reproduce this state by knowing when he or she is tense and needs to relax.
To learn to relax using this process takes practice and time. Fifteen to twenty minutes a day at least five
times a week in the beginning is recommended.
Associated Therapists sells an Audio Program that structures an
individual through the exercises, however there are many other resources available. Simply go to a web search
engine such as www.google.com and enter the words "progressive muscle
relaxation" in the search area. Many sites will appear.
There are times that a "self help" approach to dealing with an anxiety problem is
not effective or recommended. Unfortunately anxiety can be debilitating and assistance from a professional is
required. Most mental health professionals are trained in assisting people with anxiety disorders. Some
professionals specialize in these issues. If assistance is required consult with a mental health professional
regarding your specific needs.
Page written by: Julio J. Guerra, Ph.D.
All information provided on this site is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between
a patient or site visitor and his or her physician or mental health provider. Confidentiality of data relating to
individual patients and visitors to this site, including their identity, is respected and will be held by the same
standards that govern the requirements of patient confidentiality in the state of California.
Page Last Update: 09/05/11