If you missed part 1 of this anxiety series, I encourage you to go back and read it before continuing below. I share details of my own personal struggle with anxiety and panic attacks.
At the end of Part 1, I let you know that I’d be sharing a framework developed by one of my professional heroes, Dr. Bruce Perry. He’s been featured on Oprah and is one of her go-to experts on childhood trauma. And the reality is, if we look at issues like trauma and PTSD, we’re really dealing with anxiety. So the information and framework that he shares apply 100% to anxiety in general.
Fortunately for me, when I first started to struggle with ongoing anxiety and panic attacks, I had already been learning about this framework and working to incorporate it into my overall philosophy of behavioral health management. I’d had the opportunity to attend a full-day training Bruce did in Indianapolis, and talk with him afterward. I’d had the chance to spend several years in Santa Clara County, CA learning under our mutual colleague, Dr. Kristie Brandt, who’s quite an accomplished professional in her own right. So I put this information right to work during my most serious panic attacks, and it helped me move back toward peak performance much quicker. Armed with personal experience that demonstrated the effectiveness of this model, I got serious about sharing it with my clients, the grad students I teach and, well, pretty much everyone else who would listen.
What this framework is all about
The Neurosequential Model explains how the human brain works. It’s helpful to understand how your brain responds to what’s happening around you and within you.
You can see what it looks like in the image below.
Photo credit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1uCn7VX6BPQ
If you want to hear Bruce Perry break it all down for you, I encourage you to listen to his full presentation. But I’ll break it down for you here:
Your brain is always taking in information from what’s happening around you and within your body. As information comes in, your body uses important systems to decide what parts of your brain need to be involved in the response. Then it processes the information and decides what needs to happen next. This is how your brain works to keep you alive.
When your brain gets signals that say everything is good and you’re safe, your brain can operate at its highest level (the blue part of the model, known as the neocortex). This is where you’re the most creative and innovative. This is where you’re operating at the highest level of your IQ. In fact, no brilliant innovation comes from anywhere except the neocortex.
As your body receives signals that there is a threat to you or stress that you’re under, your brain starts to operate at the lower levels. The farther down you go in the framework, the more your brain operates on instinct. Or, as Bruce Perry says, “The more threatened you get, literally the dumber you get.”
That might sound bad, but there’s a reason for it too. If you’re standing in the middle of the road and a car is coming, you don’t need to think creatively about what to do. You need to move out of the way fast! This is what the lowest level of your brain helps you do. However, if you’re under stress from work or relationships, or having a panic attack, you don’t want to be operating at your lowest level.
Understanding the way your brain works allows you to be mindful of the situation that you’re in, and determine what part of your brain you’re working from at the moment. If you realize that you aren’t at your highest level, being aware of it allows you to take necessary steps to move to a higher level of thinking.
Knowing this framework can also help you when interacting with others. When you’re with other people, whoever is in the lowest brain state tends to drag others down with them. If you observe that someone is under stress and may not be operating from the highest level, think about what you can do to help them calm before trying to talk through the situation using logic. Regulate first, then reason.
What you can do to stay at the highest level
Now that you have a better understanding of the way your brain works, there are some things that you can do to help it stay at a higher level.
1. Get enough sleep
After one of my severe panic attacks, my wife who is a nurse practitioner suggested that I didn’t have an anxiety problem but just needed more sleep. She pointed out that I was in a stressful period of life and was not getting enough rest. I was a little mad at her, but after 8 hours of sleep I did feel a lot better.
While she wasn’t 100% right, she did help me to recognize that sleep plays an important role in my anxiety level. When I’m not getting enough sleep on a consistent basis it puts me at a higher risk for anxiety.
2. Watch the caffeine consumption
I’ll readily admit that I’m a coffee junkie. As a professor, I operate on cycles that line up with the three semesters each year. As we near the end of each semester, I find myself pushing harder and harder as the deadline for grades approaches. And, I find myself getting less and less sleep and consuming more and more caffeine.
I can get away with that for a little while. But once the semester closes out, I detox from coffee and caffeine. I focus on getting more sleep and resetting my systems. I’ve learned that I need to be intentional about this process and encourage my clients to do the same.
Are you taking vacations? Do you take the weekends off or jump into something equally as stressful as work?
Having the right routines pays off over time. If you don’t have good habits established around rest, relaxation and resetting your biological rhythms it can get really easy to struggle more with anxiety.
3. Anxiety medication
I shared in Part 1 of the series about how I was given a prescription for my anxiety to use as a “Plan B.” My doctor told me that some people find just having medication nearby helps them feel less anxious. That has certainly been true for me! Knowing I had a backup plan helped me to focus on using other techniques to lower my anxiety first. I know that I have access to the medication if I need it, and that’s good enough for most situations I find myself in. During the first year that I had the prescription, I might have taken 8 pills. I’m not even 100% sure that the medication really works beyond a placebo effect, but knowing it’s there has helped me to feel less anxious.
Not everyone needs or wants medication, and I’m really careful to follow my client’s lead during conversations about it. I never want to be seen as a counselor who pushes people to take medication when they aren’t ready. In some situations, though, I’ve seen it work wonders … so it’s worth mentioning here!
These are good strategies to help with a long-term solution for handling anxiety. But what do you do in the middle of a panic attack? Stay tuned to learn more, or send me a message here.