Everyone feels anxious from time to time. It’s how our brain detects ‘threats’ to our physical or emotional safety and is therefore important for our survival. For some of us, though, what may once have been innocent, garden-variety anxiety metamorphoses into a terrifyingly random experience of panic and disorder that strikes at will and can sometimes feel akin to dying. Truly, it can be THAT scary and overwhelming.
Anxiety is triggered by the amygdala, which is like our brain’s smoke alarm. For some of us, the smoke alarm goes ‘off’ more easily than for others - even when there is nothing to be alarmed about - and sets off physical sensations (e.g., racing heart, nausea, dizziness) which can feel very frightening. Hand-in-hand with these physical symptoms are anxious thoughts and we can be consumed into a negative and unreasonable cycle of catastrophic thinking.
There are many reasons for this, but mainly it’s a combination of the way our brains get “wired” up, what happens to us, what we pick up (or learn) from those around us, and maybe what we inherit in terms of a genetic predisposition to being anxious. The main message here is anxiety is NOT your fault, but it IS your responsibility to find ways to live with it more comfortably so that you can reduce its impact in your life.
Unpleasant as it may be, turns out the problem is not the anxiety, it’s how we cope with it that causes the problem. Furthermore, wanting it to go away doesn’t help and makes it WORSE (and can it itself lead to panic). The paradox is that what you resist will persist. Curiously, though, what you can feel you can heal.
So, recognising that (to some degree) anxiety is an experience that everyone has at various times in their life, the question is how can I meet my anxiety in a more helpful way? Paradoxical as it may seem, the answer lies in turning to FACE it. This means feeling it, accepting it, being curious about it, and then applying the skilful action to soothe and comfort yourself while the anxiety is present.
When you start to notice the anxiety rising up in your body, or the anxious thoughts starting to pull you into a negative spiral, see if you can press “pause”. Instead of resisting, try to calmly acknowledge the feeling in your body. “oh yes, hello old friend, it’s you again” (using the same kind voice you would use when talking to a friend about these feelings, i.e.“sounds like you are feeling anxious my friend, that’s ok, it will pass. You are not alone.)
Recognise that it is just anxiety, it is a physiological and mental experience that will pass. It’s not your fault, but it is your responsibility to take care of yourself while it is here. If you are not willing to have anxiety, you WILL have it!
Curious about it
Perhaps be curious about what might have triggered the anxious feeling. Were you thinking about an exam, or a test of some sort, or a future event that you can’t control? What is it that you are so scared of? Recognise the “catastrophising” thoughts are not based on evidence. The worst is very, very, very, unlikely to happen. These are just anxious thoughts. They will also pass. But in the meantime, skilful action will help.
Expect skilful action
- practise breathing long and slowly, making your exhalation slightly longer than your inhalation. It can help to put your hand on your stomach and consciously breathe into your belly, noticing the rising and the falling of your hand as you breathe. Do this for as long as you need to until it passes (and it WILL pass).
- bring yourself into the present moment using your senses: deliberately notice what you can hear, smell, touch, and see around you.
- Gently physically soothe yourself in the same way you might naturally give a child a comforting hug if they were distressed (sounds silly but try it, you might be very suprised)
- Take your attention to the soles of the feet – go for a slow walk returning your attention to the soles of your feet whenever you notice it has wandered away. This is a grounding exercise, which anchors your attention in the ‘here and now’ and helps you get out of the ‘shrinking thinking’ pattern in which you think all the worst thoughts.
- Try to broaden your horizon – put some music on, go for a walk, pat your dog,
- Recognise how your self-critic can be really mean to you. Notice what the thoughts are and try to tune into your compassionate wise voice instead. Think about what would you say to your friend?
- Most important of all is to Be your Own Best Friend and DO WHAT WORKS