The Biology of An Emotion | Slowing Down Anxiety, Panic,and Distress

This week, a number of my #BPDfriends on Twitter were suffering from what appeared to me to be intense episodes of emotional dysregulation -- something that I, as a person with Borderline Personality Disorder, am all too familiar with (thought they are far and few between compared with years past).

In each instance that I was honored to be able to provide some peer support, I noticed a few things that you may recognize in yourself when your emotions begin to spiral. I know I sure did. 

Trigger warning - description of intense symptoms during some emotion dysregulation episodes. If you are particularly sensitive to such topics at the moment, you may want to skip down to the END Trigger Warning section. Remember, I am not a doctor or therapist. Seek medical/psychiatric assistance for diagnosis and assistance.

They are:
  • Intense mental reactions, such as:
    • Racing stream of thoughts that overwhelm you. You can't seem to stop thinking, and the thoughts are coming super fast
    • A feeling of being frantic, helpless, and out of control
    • Worries about the past
    • Worries about the future (including "what if" thoughts)
    • Worries that you are going crazy
    • Worries that you will never feel better again
    • Worries that you have or will "lose everything" you have (relationships, jobs, etc.)
  • Intense physical reactions, such as:
    • Issues with breathing, i.e., hyperventilating, feeling like you're not breathing enough, pre-occupation with the breath in a fearful way, tightness in chest or feeling of throat closing which makes it seem like you're not getting enough air
    • Gastrointestinal issues, i.e. stomach upset, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain
    • Headache
    • Muscle tension

END  Trigger Warning

When I saw others in pain and was fortunately available and willing to step up and try to support them as a peer, I kept a few things in mind:

  • I've felt similarly before and made it through. They can too.
  • They have probably felt similarly before and have made it through. They will again.
  • Anxiety and Panic are like a mouse with a microphone, loud and scary, but very often there is no actual danger.
  • When emotions are dysregulated at this level, the person is in Emotion Mind. I know that, for me, anything that can help me back into Wise Mind is a good thing during these episodes.
  • There are things that can be done to potentially help slow down the cycle 
  • I am not a doctor or therapist, so I need to be conscious of this, support as a peer, and be careful of my boundaries

Look At It As a Curious Scientist

With all of that, I kept in mind some things that my DBT therapist has been discussing lately, one of which is the biology of emotions - particularly anxiety.  Thinking of what happens to my state of mind and body - the hardwired human responses when triggered into an anxious or panicky episode - really helps to make it less scary for me. 

For example:
  • Biological changes, including a brain change in neural firing
  • Muscle tension
  • An urge to run away, fight back, or freeze
  • Crying
  • Feeling terrified
These are part of a universal experience when these emotions arise, and if you can remember this the next time you experience it, it may help to slow down any reaction you have to the episode, helping you to not add to your distress.

Breaking Free From The Cycle

The way I helped my friends - and a way you can help yourself the next time you notice you're stuck in the vicious cycle of biological changes and ruminating on the situation that triggered the emotion - is to make a move by responding to the biological changes. 

Start by:
  • Noticing what's happening in your mind and body
  • Describe, non-judgmentally, what you notice. For example: Breathing is faster. Heart is racing. Feeling like I'm not grounded.
  • Figure out what desired emotion or behaviors you want, and act accordingly

One of the most effective DBT skills I've found in this situation, both when helping my peers and myself is Distraction.  Once I've noticed, described, and figured out that I want to feel better, whether that means safe vs. fearful, happy vs. sad, calm vs., angry, etc., I want to distract my mind with thoughts that interrupt the pattern of unwanted thoughts that continue to race through my brain.

If helping someone else, I may ask random questions, such as their favorite movie, singer, color, or cuisine. If I get one word answers, I ask for elaboration.

During the time that the person is responding to these distracting questions, messages are being sent back to the brain and nervous system that there is no danger and that all systems can return to normal, so to speak. If you're alone and wanting to do this for yourself, you can turn a television program that requires close attention to follow the story, get online and find some YouTube videos that are detailed, such as makeup tutorials, or fill out a crossword puzzle or word game -- yes -- in the midst of feeling like you are...distraction can (and often does) help.

Remember and tell yourself, "I don't have to suffer."

Remember that your interpretations of what is happening during an episode of emotional dysregulation do not always reflect reality. Be open to the possibility that your Emotion Mind is doing a lot of the talking and that you will have more rational, reasonable assessments of your situation once your nervous system has finally calmed down.

And, about that, I've often noticed that while my mind may logically get that I am not in danger and that I am safe, my body may take extra long to catch up. My heart may still race for a while. I may still randomly sob even though I've stopped crying. I may still feel uncomfortable with muscle tension or stomach upset.  Don't let this distress you further.  

In my experience, it takes longer for the physiological/biological ramifications of the distress to dissolve and stop.  I find that the more effort you put into self-care, soothing, and distraction, the sooner you feel better on all levels, including physical. Just be patient. Your equilibrium will be restored, and you can help facilitate this by remaining as calm as you can in the meantime.

Other skills that can help during this time are deep,meditative breathing and half-smiling, which has been scientifically proven to help positively affect mood.

I hope this was helpful for you or someone you love and that it took some out of the "scary" out of emotional episodes.

Thanks for reading.
More Soon.


  1. Distraction really works well for me too!

    1. That's great, K.C.! Thanks for sharing. ♥ Debbie

  2. Thanks! I know this is an older post, and ypu probably don't have time to answer, but maybe your readers may be able to help too. Why do people with BPD experience such high anxiety? And do medications like Prozac help? I really worry about the damage/stress does to my body when I'm anxious - which of course leads to more anxiety. So thanks so much for these tips to try Debbie xx

    1. Hi Katie -- each person's experience will be very different, and I am not a doctor, so I can't answer this question as thoroughly as one could. I do know that many people with BPD that I connect with (and I personally) take an anti-anxiety medication from time to time to help manage that aspect of the symptoms. It sounds like you really want to take care of yourself, which is wonderful. Mindfulness meditations, especially guided meditations and muscle tension and relaxation exercises -- anything that calms my nervous system --- I've found to be very helpful in reducing the intensity of stress and the episodes of anxiety. Hope this helps! ♥ Debbie



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