Fight or Flight: How Women of Color Can Manage Episodes of Panic or Anxiety
By: Malaya Lualhati
In communities of color, we are often discouraged from seeking the help or guidance that we need for regular mental and emotional upkeep because of the association of mental illness with whiteness and privilege. Therefore, anxiety can often have an aggressive side and is often masked by anger or hostility as a defense mechanism.
This is important to mention because “anxiety” is often stigmatized as a symptom of socially awkward white kids who are too afraid to talk to people. In an effort to de-stigmatize mental illness, we must acknowledge how anxiety more often than not manifests itself as anger or hostility in people of color because the brutal conditions people of color have endured for hundreds of years have created a machismo culture that is critical of sensitivity.
This creates an oppressive paradigm for people with anxiety because anxiety is associated with fear and fear is associated with weakness. This association with weakness can be potentially dangerous if you come from a family or community that believes people with anxiety need to be toughened by different abusive measures. These are the kinds of situations where we are most likely to develop an aggressive response to anxiety, and this can manifest into violence if a healthy coping mechanism is not implemented.
At its most basic level, anxiety is rooted in the fight-or-flight mechanism that is wired into human biology to handle any kind of stress. This biological mechanism is designed to supercharge the body in a state of emergency, such as crossing paths with an aggressive predatory animal. A shot of adrenaline is pumped through the body, heart rate speeds up, breathing patterns speed up, blood pressure skyrockets as the heart tries to pump all the blood it can to the brain and muscles so the body is physically strong, mentally sharp, and ready for action, and the whole body is affected by this physical response. Even small stressors elicit this physical response on some level, which is why small stressors can accumulate over time and trigger an anxiety attack. It is very important for our well-being that individuals who struggle with anxiety know how to identify and treat these symptoms when we are experiencing them.
4 Calming Techniques to use In-the-Moment for Stress-Induced Anxiety or Panic
If you’re experiencing accelerated heart rate or shortness of breath…
Having a deep breathing technique that is customized to your needs is extremely important, and if you can find a way to implement it into your daily life, it will be all the more powerful in the midst of an anxiety or panic attack. The importance of breathing cannot be stressed enough because consistent lack of oxygen can quickly land you in the hospital. The best part about this practice is that you can get creative and experiment until you find what works best for you. Here are some techniques commonly used in yogic pranayama practices and mental health therapy and counseling:
1. Alternate Nostril Breathing
Bring the left forefinger and thumb to the nose. Use the thumb to close the left nostril. Breathe in through the other. Use the forefinger to close the right nostril, and breathe out through the left. Then breathe in through the left, close the left nostril, and breathe out through the right. Repeat this process, anchoring your focus on the alternating pattern and the sensations you feel in your body as it starts to relax.
2. Sequential Breathing
Sequential breathing has many different styles and is easily customized. It can be a consistent sequence, such as breathing in for three counts and then breathing out for three counts repeatedly. It can also rise gradually in order to build the breath, such as breathing in for one count, holding for one count, and breathing out for one count. Then two counts, then three counts, and all the way up to ten or until you are relaxed. This building technique is especially helpful if you experience extreme shortness of breath during an anxiety attack because it allows you to ease out of it slowly, at a steady pace.
Make sure to breathe deeply and fully in each of these practices, working down into your diaphragm at the bottom of your belly and up through to your collarbones. It does not have to be a perfect, full breath in order to be effective, and it is most likely that it won’t be in the midst of a panic attack. What matters most is that you are focused on the task and actively working in the direction of achieving that deep, full breath.
If you are experiencing congestion and inflammation from crying and are unable to breathe through the nose…
3. Steam Therapy
We all know a good hot shower is a timeless form of therapy for many of us when we are in distress; and even if you don’t get in the shower, turning on the water and allowing the bathroom to fill with steam will help open up your airways. Bringing a pot of water to boil and leaning over it while covering your head with a towel is another great way to steam out some of that congestion and inflammation.
There’s a great variety of essential oils that can be relieving in an anxiety attack and help to open up the airways. Peppermint and eucalyptus are great for decongestion, while lavender can help you to relax into the breath. Add a few drops to your steam therapy for more powerful results. It can also be helpful to apply these to the temples, back of the neck, and center of the chest.
Malaya Lualhati is a multidisciplinary creative promoting revolutionary healing within communities of color by establishing spaces of health and wellness that are relevant to the experiences of people of color and speak to the interests of self-determination and healthy, wholesome living. For more information, visit @malayangelou on Instagram.