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Extinguishing Anxiety: Know Your Triggers!

posted by Beyond Blue

Anxiety arrives much like a surprise visit from an unwanted guest. You can be sailing along in your recovery program, doing all the right things, and then, BAM! You feel like you need to grab the paper bag you used to breathe through during your more severe panic attacks.

Interestingly enough, when I was in South Bend, Indiana a week ago visiting my alma mater, Saint Mary’s College, I had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Catherine Pittman, a psychology professor and the author of a very helpful book (with Elizabeth Karle), “Extinguishing Anxiety: Whole Brian Strategies to Relieve Fear and Stress.” I placed it on the top of my other books to review and compose interview questions. But a few days after returning, I experienced the same heart palpitations and knot in my stomach that I recognize as acute anxiety.

I grabbed her book and have underlined practically every word of it. It’s full of great exercises to reduce anxiety. Since I’m presently in a major bout of it myself, I thought I’d feature some of her suggestions in a series of posts on “extinguishing anxiety.”

Today I wanted to explain her exercise of identifying your triggers, because this is an appropriate first step. Pittman clarifies the process of “association” that occurs when we experience those first symptoms of anxiety: shortened breath, heart palpitations, sweat, dizziness, nausea. Our brain (or more specifically, the amygdala or “fear center” of our brain) is pairing a trigger with a negative event from the past. The negative event produces an automatic pain or discomfort that we can’t really control. The trigger produces a “learned” fear or anxiety, that we can “unlearn” via replacing with new experiences. Here is the illustration she uses that I think is very useful to seeing how this occurs on an unconscious level.

Pittman explains how we can control our anxiety if we can learn to speak the “language of the amygdala.” For example, say you were bit badly by a pit bull (I know I will hear from readers with pit bulls, so I apologize in advance for using this dog as an example, but to be perfectly honest, they scare the bejeezus out of me) a year ago. You have developed a fear of pit bulls. So when you hear your neighbor’s pit bull bark, you tense up and feel anxious. His bark (the trigger) is associated with the negative event (bite). Since your amygdala has a killer memory, it automatically pairs the pain of the dog bite with the barking, so that you experience a kind of learned anxiety.

Merely seeing the simple illustration of how this works was helpful for me, because I realized the anxiety I am feeling today is produced by a few triggers I wasn’t even conscious of until I did Pittman’s exercise of identifying triggers that might be producing anxiety for me.

One was Memorial Day. On a subconscious level, I associate the beginning of summer with anxiety, because I tend to relapse in the summer, and during the summer of 2005 and 2006, I experienced the most acute anxiety and depression of my two-year slump.

The second was hanging out at the pool yesterday. The pool is a setting (and settings, alone, can act as a trigger, says Pittman) that creates some anxiety for me since, again, during that time of severe depression I remember not being able to contain my tears there, and wishing that I could find a way to drowned myself in the water. So, today, when I look at the pool, my subconscious memory says, “Remember those summers that you wanted so badly to die? You are going to feel like that again this summer.” I ran into a woman whom I saw frequently during that depressed time, so that reinforced the memory of those painful summer months. I began to exhibit physical symptoms. I tensed up. My shoulders rose. I clenched my jaws. And I had no interest in touching the free hotdogs and burgers that were being served because my stomach was knotted up.

The third (ongoing) trigger is the release and letting go of a project in which I poured myself into … the Commencement address. It’s natural to come down after you finish writing a book, or painting a room, or even finishing a scrapbook, to experience a sense of loss. Some projects absorb so much of your time and attention that, when they are over, you have an uncomfortable vacancy that creates anxiety. It’s a little like participating in an intensive program or retreat, when you bond with all the other participants. When you go home, the first days are tough, because you miss them. You have grown to enjoy them, and the letting go process can be a tad painful, especially if you have abandonment issues from your childhood. “I’m never investing my heart in anything again,” your amygdala might whisper in your ear.

So the way out of your anxiety, says Pittman, is to build new associations. For example, I have been concentrating on moments in the last few summers that I have been genuinely happy: at the kids’ swim meets, where I get to disqualify all the breaststrokers who are trying to get away with scissor kicks. I love playing cop! (Sarcasm here.) Especially to seven-year-olds trying to swim one length of a pool for the first time. In all seriousness, swim meets are a positive association for me, because I have memories that span ten summers or more from my youth, when I participated on swim team, and had a blast with fellow teammates. They were a source of great joy. And so I try to go back there, and replace the summers of depression, with new swim team memories of coaching the kids, being pool cop, etc.

I will discuss other strategies and techniques that Dr. Pittman offers in her book in later posts. However, identifying your triggers is a great starting place to learn how to try to pluck the seeds of your anxiety before they have a chance to grow too long and entangled.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment P

    LOL Did you write this for me? Today? Thanks you:) Feeling a little better about the first day of summer now . . .

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Kay

    I’m going to get this book as soon as possible! I’ve been facing anxiety and I always feel like it is arbitrary. Thank you for sharing! As always, you know how to reach readers right where they are. You are a blessing to us all.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Nancy

    Wow…I needed this today after a weekend of anxiety that I couldn’t make sense of where it was coming from. Thank you!

    Nancy

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Razz2

    One of the great things about being in a recovery program for alcohol addiction is learning about “triggers” and then form a plan to either avoid them or learn to change your thoughts on them. Since I self-medicated my depression and anxiety with alcohol almost 99% of my triggers were/are emotionally and/or mentally related. So when those I start to feel my anxiety level rise I start looking at what’s going on in my life. This past 2 weeks have been challenging for me in terms of my mental wellness and I have been looking for/at triggers. One that really blind sided me was a deep seated anger that blew up unexpectedly until I was able to put 2+2 together. I was getting ready for a garage and going through tons of “stuff” we had in the basement. A lot of the stuff was from times when my daughter was little and happy. That all ended when she was 10 yrs. old and she suffered from some kind of major trauma about which she either has repressed or won’t talk about. Since she is 30 now I thought I had dealt with all of that “stuff”…. obviously I hadn’t. I’d be curious as to how to change that one into a positive response.

    Razz2

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Patty

    Thank you for sharing! Although summer is my favorite season, I share the same anxieties. Knowledge is power and knowing triggers helps me with this ongoing battle!

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beyondblue/2011/05/extinguishing-anxiety-know-your-triggers.html Elizabeth

    How interesting about the subconscious triggers. I am going to have to think about those because I have had some anxiety lately and I don’t know where it’s coming from.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Deb

    My only son, to whom I’m obsessively attached (another issue, another day), will be leaving in two days for his internship. I am overwhelmed with anxiety that something bad will happen to him. I cannot figure out a trigger other than my general fear of anything and everything being dangerous to his wellbeing. Help!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mary

    Therese,
    I volunteer at an animal shelter and was bitten by a pitbull that was professionally evaluated and proclaimed to have no aggression towards humans, dogs, cats, or small animals. I almost lost my hand. I can stand to hear pitbulls, even see them, but I was later bitten by a chihuahua. I passed out on the floor! I woke up to a tiny scratch on my hand (the same one) and one very confused looking chi. I had never passed out before but I actually felt all the blood rushing to my feet, I had such a horrible anxiety reaction. Then I had to catch the little guy and put him back into his kennel. I could see how frightened he was, so I talked to him until we both calmed down. But guess what? Now I have anxiety when I am near chihuahuas! I am definitely getting that book.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Linda Gibson

    Linda

    I have anxiety and tense up often. It’s a wonder I have teeth to chew with. Thanks for the info. Now I know what it is for sure and can begin to deal with it.

    I recently finished a book about bipolar disorder and have been somewhat down because I am now facd with the task of marketing it.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment kk

    From so many articles on the web, this explains it really well! This sure beats the top 10 bla bla bla things to do to overcome anxiety.

    Very well explained, now that I have this knowledge, it’s easier to deal with my anxiety problems!

    Many thanks for this useful bit of information!

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Prah

    You should look into ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) based off of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
    Once you learn a behavior there is no going back, we can’t unlearn or “unteach” behaviors BUT we can learn NEW behaviors- ACT focuses on such processes.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Haley

    I can totally relate to this. Last October, I flew to Vegas and experienced a great deal of anxiety before the trip, once I landed, it got so bad that I literally could not enjoy myself and had to jump right back on a plane home. I started an antidepressant/anti-anxiety medication upon my arrival at home and the next few weeks were hell. I was still recovering over the Holidays but eventually got back to my old “self”. Here we are a year later, the first day of October and I’m experiencing extreme anxiety- I believe it’s just my subconscious worrying that the same thing will happen again, same month as last year. Funny how that works, huh? Can a month, or time of year, be a trigger? I guess so. Going to try to let go and attach myself to positive things/people/ideas/affirmations…..Best of luck to all of you!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Brenda

    I’m considering trying just about anything right now because I have come to terms with the fact that I’ve been dealing with a lot of anxiety issues over the past few months. Most of them seem to be related to past love relations. For example, if my boyfriend neglects to say I love you before we go to bed or seems to not want to talk to me (in the relationship I was in before we got together, my ex had acted that way towards me and then suddenly told me he was bored with me and left me) I wind up in something like a drunken stupor of sadness. He does sweet things now and then and is working so hard to prove to me that he truly cares, but each time one of these triggers pops up it sends us right back into the same set of arguments we’ve been having. I know he loves me otherwise he wouldn’t have stuck with me for this long despite I keep going in circles. I really need to get these triggers under control or else I know I’m going to drive him away … it’s the last thing I want to do. I hope this book really gives me something to work with. I need any help I can get.

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