Anxiety and Panic Overstimulate the Brain--Mindfulness Helps
Thursday, June 8 2017 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Anxiety and panic can overstimulate the brain, rocket our senses into hyperactivity, and make us feel wired. When we feel keyed-up and on edge, it can feel as though nothing will help. Here we are at risk of jumping right out of our own skin, which would do nothing more than increase both anxiety and panic, and there’s not a thing we can do to settle down. Or is there? It can seem counter-intuitive, but practicing mindfulness when we’re at our most agitated can help when anxiety and panic overstimulate your brain.
Anxiety and Panic Overstimulate Your Senses
Anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, directly impact the body. There’s a host of physical symptoms that accompany panic attacks and anxiety, and they’re very real. There’s an intricate relationship between brain and body (and of course the brain is part of the body) so that the physical changes in the brain that happen during a panic attack, or even a prolonged period of anxiety, can be felt in any system of the body.
Our senses, also part of the integrated whole that is the human body, play a significant role in anxiety and panic. Depending on our unique experiences with anxiety, we might be fearful and afraid of what is happening now or what might happen in the future. Perhaps we’re worried about having yet another panic attack in public. Maybe we're watching to see how people are judging us, or we’re alert to possible harm that could come our way. The specific worries and fears are unique to each individual, but what is common to all is this state of hypervigilance.
When we’re on the lookout for our worries and fears to come true, we are in a state of alertness in which:
- Lights seem brighter
- Noise reverberates in our head more loudly than necessary
- Smells are stronger
- The world seems too fast or, conversely, too slow as the overstimulated brain tries to process all of the input coming from the senses
- Thoughts race
An effect of anxiety and panic is that the brain goes into overdrive. To check for danger, it collects more data through the senses. But all of this extra sensory input overstimulates the brain, making it hard for it to calm back down. When the brain is anxious and overstimulated, we feel miserable.
Mindfulness Soothes Anxiety and Panic When Overstimulated
Mindfulness involves becoming still and peaceful by using the senses to pay attention to the present moment. Can mindfulness actually work for anxiety and panic when the senses are causing the brain to be overstimulated and anxious?
Personally, when I am overstimulated and overwhelmed by lights, sounds, smells, and touch, my anxiety increases even more. I feel restless and agitated. Before I started practicing mindfulness, if someone told me to be still and pay attention to my senses, senses I only wanted to ignore, I would have smiled politely and privately dismissed the advice. It doesn’t seem to make sense to focus on the senses when the senses are overstimulating the brain and increasing the feelings of anxiety.
If we overthink it, practicing mindfulness when overstimulated seems dumb. Yet here is something we can do—intentionally practice mindfulness—where we can let go, stop overthinking and overanalyzing it, and just do it. That alone can be soothing and anxiety-reducing.
The following suggestions will help you learn to practice mindfulness when you’re overstimulated by anxiety and panic:
- Begin using these tips before you are overstimulated by anxiety and panic so they come more naturally in those situations where they aren’t natural.
- Start with just one of your senses, one that brings you the least discomfort.
- Using the sense you’ve chosen, be intentional about paying attention to your present moment by looking at visual details, hearing auditory details, etc.
- When your mind wanders, bring it back to the present by noticing your surroundings with your chosen sense.
- Branch out and practice mindfulness in different ways, such as sitting quietly, walking, while doing chores, and more.
- Consider setting a gentle alarm to prompt you to be mindful each hour.
- Gradually pay attention to your other senses to deepen your experience.
As you become accustomed to practicing mindfulness, you’ll be able to use it in times of high anxiety and during panic attacks. Your senses may be overstimulating you, but when you intentionally use them to experience your surroundings in the present moment, you are taking charge and reducing the sensory input bombarding your anxious brain.