Feeling the (heart)beat

Last night I woke up from a pretty wretched nightmare: I dreamt that I was scheduled for execution by drowning, and I was desperately calling and emailing and trying to figure out how I got myself into that situation and if there was some way to avoid dying.

Yeah, I know, Freud would have a field day with that, etc. etc.

Anxiety is more infectious than any virus, a virtual pandemic of its own. It’s a challenge for anyone to cope with in these fraught times, and even more so for those of us who struggle with our mental health.

When I ask my friends who don’t share these struggles to explain to me the physical manifestation of their anxiety, they’re most likely to described something like a knot in their stomach or a tightening of their chest – it sounds unpleasant, for sure, but somehow contained to one part of the body.

For those of us with anxiety and panic disorders, those sensations tend to be more all-encompassing. When my anxiety rises it feels like all of my nerve endings and every neuron in my brain are being zapped by static electricity. It’s not painful, just unbearable. And when that happens, for me, I know it’s only a matter of time until, like an engine turning, it can become a driving sense of panic.

I feel that I need to add the disclaimer that I’m not a doctor or a therapist, and I can only speak to my own experience. That being said there are some things I know are universal. When our thoughts are spinning and we are anxious, our heart rate increases. When we feel our hearts pounding faster, we become even more anxious. It’s a vicious feedback loop that makes us more and more anxious.

For myself, I can’t break that loop by changing my thoughts, but I can break it by changing my heart rate. Simple breathing exercises (4 counts in, 4 counts hold, 6 counts out) can slow down our breathing and eventually our heart. When our mind is in full anxiety mode but our body is not responding because one is trying to relax it, the feedback loop is broken.

For those times that I can catch anxiety before it gets too elevated, I play a game with myself. Wherever I am – at home, in an unfamiliar city, in a plane stuck on the tarmac – I make myself look carefully around my environment and pick out something that immediately grabs my attention. It doesn’t have to be profound or amazing, just something I notice – the color of a fluorescent pen on my desk, the shifting shadow of a tree in the wind, the pattern on the fabric of a chair. In those few seconds that I can focus on something else, I’m brought, in a simple but profound way, into the present. And when I’m present, the whirlwind in my mind immediately loses energy and I come back to myself.

A final thought – everyone is anxious right now; it’s difficult not to be. Maybe we’d be best served by leaning into anxiety, with the knowledge that as uncomfortable it may be, it’s something that we all share, and therefore connects us to each other. And that thought itself is enough to bring me a little calm.

8 thoughts on “Feeling the (heart)beat

    1. I was meaning that I’ve created my account on WordPress.com. Typos.
      We do have an expression in French which says “Un esprit sain dans un corps sain.” It basically means “A healthy mind in a healthy body”. You probably have something like that in English. Science has proven that key concept over the years with many clinical studies. Anxiety can be reduced by exercices (whatever the ones you like) & meditation. There is something that I’ve learned recently in an American medical review: meditation can also be achieved when you are gardening, painting,… You don’t have to sit in the cliché position that we’re used to see. Some can medicate in that position but it is not mandatory. Meditation does vary with each person. I’ve found that encouraging because a lot of people say that medication doesn’t work fro them when they sit in that position.
      n.b.: I chose a free domain that I call rnsylvainbcoteonthewheels. I’m doing home visits so…ha!ha!ha!

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  1. Lucian says:

    I remember when I was a kid I had big issues with needles.. when me and my school mates were appointed for vaccination I used to stay among the last ones and my mind, as I was waiting, amplifies the fear feeling transforming an unpleasant moment into a nightmare.. One day I realised I do it wrong giving my mind space to work on that fear and changed the strategy: be the first that enter the doctor cabinet.. well, everything was easier and with that change I even defeat my needle phobia, as I saw is not that bad as it seems.. We can adapt and face a lot of tough situations, if we don’t let our mind work against us..
    Speaking of mind, I use gym workout succesful to keep the balance in troubled times. Now gym is an impossible task, but there are a lot of phone apps that helps allmost as personal trainer. I’ll put a link bellow with the benefits of phisycal workout, hope you will find it interesting

    https://www.helpguide.org/articles/healthy-living/the-mental-health-benefits-of-exercise.htm

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    1. chefdorch says:

      Thanks for this Lucian, and I totally agree that exercise it so important! I’m still able to go outside so I’m running nearly every day, so I get some fresh air and sunshine too.

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  2. Sara, when I read your blog I was reminded of a time in the past where I encountered anxiety and panic attacks, sleepless nights, and feeling weak. One of the best therapies was being able to have a conversation with someone willing to listen to take my mind off of the anxiety. As far as dreams, we all have nightmares but I have noticed that when I do, I wake up and find myself sleeping on my back. Being on my back seemed to have an effect.

    When I find someone experiencing anxiety and panic attacks, I always ask them on a 1-10 grading what was the worst panic attack. I have been there in the 10’s a few times.

    Leaving a reply is not the same as actually having a conversation with you. I would love to have a chat if you agree to share some of our thoughts on music and depression. I’m sure it would be interesting. Let me know your thoughts?

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  3. chefdorch says:

    Being at a 10 out of 10 is rough, I’ve probably hit 8-9, I think, but it’s hard to rate when you don’t know if it can be worse!

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