4 Steps for Reducing Anxiety Attacks

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A little bit of anxiety is actually good because it helps keep us safe and out of trouble (our brains are biologically wired to protect us). Unfortunately, there are millions of people suffering with anxiety symptoms all of the time and subsequently are wracked with nervousness, predicting the worst outcome to situations, avoiding risk or conflict, and have chronic muscle tension, among other symptoms.

It’s as though their “idle” is set too high and they are frequently plagued by fear, panic, and self-doubt.

In studying the brains of anxious subjects, researchers discovered that certain areas of the brain are overactive compared to the brains of those without anxiety. One such area is called the basal ganglia, a set of large structures near the center of the brain that are involved with the integration of thought, feeling, and movement as well as motivation and pleasure.

Through our imaging work at Amen Clinics, we have observed that when the basal ganglia are overactive, a person is more likely to suffer with the symptoms of anxiety. The good news is that you can get control of your anxiety symptoms with a simple four-step panic plan — the same one I’ve taught to hundreds of my own patients.

Dr. Amen’s 4-Step Panic Plan

Step 1: Slow down your breathing. Many people don’t pay attention to their breathing during an anxiety attack, when in fact their breathing usually becomes shallow, rapid, and erratic.

This decreases the oxygen in the brain, which will trigger fear and panic (again, part of our biological wiring). When you take slow deep breaths, you increase the blood flow to your brain, which will put you back in control.

One way to practice deep breathing is by learning how to breathe from your diaphragm — the area of the body that tends to get “clenched” when we’re anxious.

This is also known as belly breathing and here’s how to get a feel for it:

a) Lie on your back and place a small book on your belly

b) When you inhale, make the book go up

c) When you exhale, make the book go down

It may take a while to get the hang of it, but keep practicing — your brain and body will thank you!

So, for step 1, breathe slowly and deeply with your belly: take five seconds to inhale; hold it for two seconds; take five seconds to exhale; hold it for two seconds; and repeat. Do this 10 times. I refer to this technique as 5 x 2=10.

Step 2: Don’t leave, run away from, or ignore whatever is causing you the anxiety, unless of course, it is life-threatening. You must face the fear or concern directly, or it will always have control over you and cause you anxiety.

You may need to talk to a trained psychotherapist about your anxiety and fears, especially if you’ve been exposed to trauma of any kind. There are some very good therapeutic methods for helping people overcome the symptoms brought on by traumatic or life-threatening experiences, and those that cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The method I usually recommend is EMDR, which stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. It helps to remove the emotional charges of traumatic memories.

Step 3: Pay attention to the thoughts in your mind and write them down to see if they make sense. Often in panicked situations our thoughts are distorted and need to be challenged. So, it may be a good idea to kill the "ANTs,” or automatic negative thoughts, that make us feel miserable. You can read more detailed information about overcoming automatic negative thoughts in my new book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Revised and Expanded 2015.

Step 4: If you’ve practiced steps 1-3, but are still suffering from too much anxiety, you may need supplements or medication to help you feel calmer. While people with severe anxiety often require medication, others may do well with supplements such as ones that contain magnesium, GABA, ashwagandha and some of the B vitamins, especially B6. Of course, you’ll want to discuss medication or adding supplements with your physician before taking them.

In summary, when panic or anxiety starts to set in, remember these four simple steps:

1. Slow down your breathing and breathe deeply from your belly. Remember 5 x 2 = 10.

2. Don’t run away from your fears. Face them and work through them.

3. Pay attention to your thoughts and challenge them.

4. Consider taking supplements or medication if Steps 1-3 don’t work.

By following this Panic Plan, it is possible for you to finally get control of your anxiety attacks!

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