Turning Tigers Into Kittens: Mindfulness and the Release of the Anxious Mind

Robert Cox, MA, PLPC, NCC is my guest blogger this week. His blog focuses on the body's response to trauma and how trauma affects anxiety and depression. He also discusses the benefits of a mindfulness practice for symptom relief. He has counseling offices in Liberty, MO, where he specializes in the treatment of trauma, addictions and autism.  He writes, "I am trying to change the face of both addictions and autism treatment. "

If you would like to know more about Robert and his practice you can find it HERE. You can also follow him on Twitter-  HERE. Or Check out his amazing Mindful Recovery Podcast HERE.


Robert Cox, MA, PLPC, NCC

Trauma can often result in increased anxiety levels and depression.  This is because our brain, already primed to sense danger in advance, becomes overloaded with the trauma and begins to associate all kinds of everyday sensations with that event.  So we can be triggered by loud noises or by certain smells or the feeling of material on our skin.  Something simple and mundane to everyone else can set us into a tail spin of increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating and racing, panicked thought patterns.  All because the limbic region of our brain (the little part at the base of the skull just above your neck that is responsible for emotional regulation) is triggered and tells our body that there is danger and we better prepare to fight or to run away.  I call it our tiger response, because it’s a great response to have if you’re being chased by a tiger, but not so helpful in the middle of Wal Mart.  

mindfulness eases anxiety

If you have suffered through trauma and anxiety, then you know this feeling.  Dealing with this feeling constantly over a period of weeks, months, even years can lead to serious depression.  It simply wears on us physically and mentally.  The good news is there is hope, and often hope outside of medication.  It’s called mindfulness.  Mindfulness is a very simple practice of regulating the body by watching the breath and allowing that focus on the here and now of basic body functions to bring us out of the anxiety and panic, back in to this moment in front of us.  By slowing the body down, we tell the brain that there is no reason to be afraid or anxious and the limbic region begins to loose its grip on the rest of the brain allowing us the emotional space to begin making rational decisions with the forebrain again. 

In addition to the immediate effect of telling the brain it’s OK when we are in mindful moments, our body and brain react by reducing stress chemicals like Cortisol which increases all those fight or flight responses and increasing good chemicals in the brain like serotonin (a depression fighting drug) and Oxytocin, which psychologists often call the “hug drug” because it’s that feel good, relaxing drug that gets released when we hug each other for 20 seconds or more.  In fact, if you have a friend, or significant other that you trust in very intimate spaces…a good thing to do might be to ask for a hug and simply stand in that moment, completely focused on the sensation of safety you are getting and watching the breath move in and out of your body.  This mindful moment would serve as a double dose of oxytocin to release the anxiety of the brain.

anxiety feels like a tiger

Often, however, when we are in those triggered spaces the last thing we want is to be touched.  In that case it comes down to using some basic exercises to bring ourselves back to the here and now and just focusing on the breath while counting to three slowly as we breathe in, and holding for a second then counting the same three as we breathe out.  When we feel like we are being chased by the Tigers of the past this simple breathing exercise can bring us right back to the present.  If we practice when we are not being chased by Tigers then we can make this response second nature and when they do come, we respond by returning to the breath in the here and now. 

Before we know it we have calmed and we can clearly see that our tigers have become kittens.

For more about this body brain link and a map of the emotional brain you can go to the Mindful Recovery Podcast page and scroll down to Episode 1: The Emotional Brain in Recovery.  The map is just below the podcast artwork and you can follow along during the episode for a fuller discussion of how the brain reacts to trauma along with a brief exercise provided to help you learn how to release the grip of the limbic region and begin your mindfulness practice.  For more about beginning your own practice you can go to my Resource Page to find tools, music and learning programs designed for your needs.

Elizabeth Cush, MA, LCPC, is an Annapolis therapist helping people manage their stress and anxiety. Progression Counseling, offices in Arnold and Annapolis. 410-340-8469