Anxiety has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. It has been one of my toughest and most constant struggles. I am just wired that way. My natural default state is one of worry. I am a CHAMPION worrier. If they gave out medals for worrying, I would be the Michael Phelps of anxiety. It’s funny because most who meet me think I am the epitome of a calm and grounded person, but the truth is that I (like many who struggle with anxiety) am like the proverbial duck. Gliding smoothly on top of the water while my feet (or brain) are going a mile a minute. I have had to really work to understand and heal this in my life. An ongoing process by the way. But it’s something I have real understanding about, and I know how tough it can be. There have been tools I have learned along the way that have made a huge difference in the way my highly sensitive brain processes anxious thoughts and experiences. I wanted to share some of these things in the event they may help someone else. But first let’s start with understanding what anxiety is.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural part of life. In fact it is born of a biological process that evolved to protect us in times of danger. Our Fight or flight response was the only chance we had at out running that lion, tiger, or bear once upon a time. The problem is that our primitive brain has not evolved as rapidly as our world has. Though we are much safer in our modern world, our brains do not perceive it that way which leaves us subject to chronic stress or anxiety. Fear is the immediate experience of the fight or flight response. The cascade of hormones and chemicals that prepares your body to do what needs to be done to survive a dangerous situation. Anxiety on the other hand is the anticipation of the dangerous situation. It is a projection into the future that your body is perceiving as real, and our primitive brain signals those same chemicals and hormones as if the threat were happening right then and there. While the emotion of fear serves to protect us from an immediate danger, anxiety serves as an adaptive function. Anxiety prepares us to prevent, or avoid, those dangerous situations in the first place. Here in lies the issue with anxiety. In the right circumstances it can be helpful. Such as in the case of a test/performance, your perceived fear of future failure will actually spur you to study/practice harder. However, if the anxiety grows beyond what is helpful, it can have a detrimental effect on your mental and physical wellbeing. Anxiety is considered normal and adaptive when it serves to improve your functioning and wellbeing. Abnormal anxiety is a chronic condition that impairs your functioning and interferes with your well-being.
Who Experiences Anxiety?
We all experience anxiety. However, when it comes to anxiety disorders there are certain people who are more prone than others. Generally speaking people who struggle with anxiety tend to be highly sensitive and highly intelligent and creative. That’s the good news! Your kind, conscientious, and possibly a genius. I know that doesn’t feel like much of a consolation prize when your really struggling with it, but it’s important to know that anxiety comes with gifts. The clinical psychologist Dr. Elaine Aron coined the term “highly sensitive person”. The highly sensitive person can be prone to anxiety but is also very creative, empathetic and intelligent. If you aren’t familiar with her or her work, you can check out her Book for more information. Here is a study on intelligence and anxiety that’s an interesting read. It’s important to keep in mind that there is an upside to all this. Understanding why you may have anxiety is helpful to a certain extent because it gives you a bit of perspective on the whole thing. However, just understanding where anxiety stems from is not enough to provide you with real relief and lasting change. We need tangible tools to rely on when our anxious brains are getting the best of us. These aren’t “preventative” tools such as meditation and diet. Those are for another post. These are tools to reach for when you IN IT. Here are some that I feel have helped me tremendously.
From Anxiety to Zen: Tools
1. GET CURIOUS – Mindfulness is a practice that is incredibly helpful for anxiety. On the preventative side, any kind of mindfulness training such as meditation or Tai Chi will help. However,when you need immediate relief, there are mindfulness techniques that can help calm an anxious state. The way you can incorporate mindfulness is by getting curious about the anxiety. Observe what is happening. Where do you feel the anxiety, what part of your body? Is it hot, cold? What does it look like? If it had a name what would it be? What does it want? Is it trying to tell you something? If you had to assign it a color, what color would it be? Try learning everything you can about it. Asking these questions turns you into the observer and allows a bit of space to form between you and your anxiety. This helps you to disengage from the anxiety and will often help to calm you down.
2. ASK YOURSELF IF IT IS TRUE – The hallmark of anxious thinking are thoughts that begin with “what if”. What if I’m dying/having a heart attack/going crazy…. you fill in the blank. This is simply the nature of the anxious mind. Remember we talked about anxiety being an adaptive function of the brain to protect us from future danger? Well this is that adaptive function gone haywire. This tool is borrowed from Byron Katie’s work. Asking yourself if the thought your having is true forces you out of the anxious “what if” loop and back to the present. Is the thought true? How do you know it’s true? Is there a chance that it isn’t true? How does believing this thought make you feel? Is there a chance that the opposite of that thought is true? In other words, could it be true that you are not dying/having a heart attack/going crazy? How does that thought make you feel? Again we are getting curious about the process instead of getting swept up in it. This allows some space to form and gives you some room so that you are not completely identifying with the anxiety.
3. PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION – Often times the first thing we do when we are feeling really anxious is berate ourselves. “Why am I feeling this way!?” “what is wrong with me!?” ” Stop it!”. These thoughts are just a form of resistance and only serve to strengthen the anxiety. What you resist persists as they say. Anxiety isn’t there to make you miserable, although it often feels that way. It’s trying to get your attention. It wants some loving compassion. Think of it like a scared child, which in many ways it is. It doesn’t have the reasoning power of the adult mind. It’s primitive and communicating in the only way that it knows how. Instead of getting angry and fighting it, show yourself some love. Be gentle with yourself. Take some deep breaths. I talked about a breathing technique in THIS post. Grab a loved one or a pet to snuggle. Ask for help and support. Treat yourself the way you would treat your child. You wouldn’t berate them for feeling scared. You would hug them and gently help them work through those feelings of fear. Do the same for yourself. Talk to yourself with kindness and love. I talk about self compassion HERE and how it directly correlates to a persons levels of depression and anxiety. Self-love is one of the greatest tools to boost your sense of well-being.
4. GET GROUNDED – My doctor, who happens to not only be my internist but also a great holistic homeopath, once told me that from a Chinese Medicine perspective anxiety has an “upwards” energy. That is why sometimes you can feel dizzy or like your head is swimming. He said the trick is to bring the energy back “downwards”. To do this you focus on your feet. You can clench your toes as hard as you can for a few seconds and repeat. Another way is to fill your bathtub or sink with a couple inches cold water and stick your feet in. This helps bring the energy down. Interestingly, when I was having high blood pressure during my last trimester of pregnancy, it was recommended that I soak my feet in warm water to bring my blood pressure down. Not sure why this works but maybe its a similar mechanism at play. My favorite way to bring the energy down, is to take off my shoes and socks and walk on the grass while really focusing on how it feels on my feet. Other ways are to rub your bare feet on carpet, or give yourself a foot massage. All of the above will help you to feel more grounded in your body.
5. GIVE IT TO NATURE – During my first trimester I had A LOT of anxiety. It was a combination of the massive life change that was about to occur coupled with surging hormones. Not to mention the fact that I have a phobia of vomiting so feeling neaseous everyday wasn’t helping my situation. My incredibly wise and compassionate therapist taught me this next tool (she also taught me the first tool about curiosity). She taught me that when the anxiety just felt too big to manage, I should hand it over to nature. To literally touch a tree or dig my hands in the sand if I’m near the water and ask that tree or the ocean or whatever bit of nature is available to you, to take over the burden for you. I know this sounds very hippy dippy new agey, and maybe even a little silly. At least that’s what my initial response was when she gave me this tool. But it TRULY works. Something about becoming aware that there are bigger, stronger forces at play in the world is calming. Also, nature itself has such a calming effect that I think anytime you can focus your attention on it, it will calm you. I also think it’s a bit of a cognitive refocusing when you are placing your hands on a tree or in the grass that shifts you back into the present moment and out of the anxious loop. I think this might be where the term tree hugger comes from because let me tell you, I hugged my share of trees during my first trimester. I didn’t even care who saw me do it. It really helped to calm me down, and it also helped to make me aware of the incredible beauty that is available to us everyday if we just lift our heads and look around. Something we can easily miss when we are consumed with our own worry and anxiety. Seriously, try it. It’s powerful stuff.
6. REFRAME IT – Anxiety and excitement are almost identical. They are both states of arousal that cause your heart to beat faster, cortisol levels to surge, your palms to sweat, and your breathing to get faster. The only difference is one state is negative and the other is positive. It is easier to switch from one state of arousal to another than it is to go from a state of arousal to its opposite state of calm. So instead of fighting/resisting the anxiety, reframe it as excitement and go with it. This is particularly helpful with performance anxiety. A STUDY done by Alison Wood Brooks at Harvard business school found that when participants in the study labeled their state of arousal as excitement instead of anxiety they actually performed better. Even more importantly, they viewed their nerve-wracking situation as an oppertunity as opposed to a threat. She coined the term “Reapppraising”. Since your body can’t tell the difference between anxiety and excitement, reappraising the anxiety changes it from a negative emotional experience to a positive one. Anxiety tends to get much worse around periods of growth and transition. Growth is a good thing! So next time you feel anxious about something remember that you’re in the midst of growth, and get excited about the possibilities that growth will bring.
These are some of the tools that have really helped me manage my anxiety over the years. I hope they are helpful to you. Have you dealt with anxiety? What has helped you? I’d love to hear about your experiences so please feel free to comment below. Till the next time, be gentle with yourself, and try to get excited! At the very least go hug a tree.