Dear Friends –
Stress abounds these days, and we are all feeling it in some way or the other.
One trend I’m noticing in myself and others around me is feelings of anxiety.
Makes sense. A lot has changed, and as I shared in my last post, change affects us on the physical, emotional, & tactical plane. That’s a lot of planes to be attending to, so if you, like me, are finding yourself anxious, overwhelmed, & grasping at moments and trying to figure out what that’s about and what to do about it, know that you are not alone. Also know that there’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with you – anxiety is a common byproduct of change.
So today, I thought we might have a look in on anxiety together – what it is, where it comes from, and how we can develop practices to work with it…since sadly, it’s not one of those things that we can just will away.
What is anxiety?
First off, I want to make a distinction between the temporary anxiety that can be brought on by an external circumstance or life change and the more perpetual anxiety that’s associated with anxiety disorders, medical conditions, or longstanding phobias.
Experiencing occasional worry or panic when things shift & change in your world is a normal part of life. This is the kind of anxiety we’re going to talk about today – it’s temporary & situational and often dissipates naturally as we settle into a change & move through a transition. Perspective & self applied strategies can really help us navigate this kind of anxiety.
Temporary anxiety is different than the kind of intense, excessive & persistent worry or fear about everyday situations that a person with a diagnosed anxiety disorder or medical condition might experience. This kind of anxiety tends to be more long standing and may be rooted in trauma, hormonal imbalance or other medical or psychological conditions. While some of the strategies I’m sharing here might be relevant & useful, this is the kind of anxiety that it’s best to seek medical & psychological expertise around.
What does temporary anxiety feel like?
People experience anxiety in different ways. That being said, common experiences include:
- Feeling generally nervous, restless or tense
- Worrying about things (often things outside of your control)
- Having a hard time concentrating (ex: on work, on tasks)
- Wanting to avoid things that trigger anxiety (ex: the news!)
- Feeling a sense of panic or doom around something
- Feeling emotionally sensitive (ex: feeling “a short fuse” or “on the verge of tears”)
- Breathing rapidly, sweating, or feeling your heart rate increase
- Feeling weak or tired
- Having a hard time sleeping well
- Experiencing physical symptoms (ex: stomach aches, head aches)
While anxiety tends to impact us physically, emotionally, & psychologically, I notice that many of the people I work with have a predisposition to notice their experience of anxiety on one of these levels first (and sometimes foremost).
My entry point is my physical body – I tend to realize that I’m feeling anxious because my stomach will start hurting, my hands get clammy, my head starts to buzz, and my heart begins to pound. I have a client who notices her anxiety first in her mind. The other day she told me, “My head starts buzzing, all these worries & fears start racing through my brain. It feels like a runaway thought train.” Another client shared that she’s come to recognize anxiety by her emotional reactions to things, “When I notice myself feeling quick to anger, I know I’m anxious about something.”
Why might we feel anxiety during a change or transition?
There are lots of reasons why change can create experiences of anxiety. As I shared in my last post, change is a multi-dimensional and non-linear experience:
We experience it on a physical level as our bodies move from a state of hyper alertness brought on by an initial adrenaline spike through the post adrenaline exhaustion and finally to a state of hormonal balance.
We experience it on an emotional level as we process loss and move through the grief cycle: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance, & meaning making.
And we experience it on a tactical level as we move from handling our most proximate and basic needs to creating new routines & structures that ground us in our new normal to building more strategic plans for the future.
If you look at some of the common symptoms of anxiety above, they correlate closely to these different dimensions of change. It makes sense that, if my body is recovering from an adrenaline rush as I’m feeling sad about a loss I’m experiencing, while I’m attempting to keep a lot of tactical balls in the air, I might feel emotionally sensitive or physically tired or that I’d be worrying about the future. Who wouldn’t be?
The COVID 19 pandemic has shifted, threatened, & brought up for hard examination the foundational ground on which many of us have built our lives – our physical health, our social connections, the work we do & how we do it, the systems & services we rely on, our sense of stability, safety & justice – to name a few.
I think it would be very concerning indeed we did not feel some level of anxiety given all that’s being mirrored to us about the state of the world right now. Feeling some level of anxiety about the current state of affairs, your place in it and the future of our world, doesn’t indicate that there is something wrong with you; I think it indicates that you/we are alive.
Furthermore, anxiety isn’t always a bad thing. In the right doses, channeled in the direction of things we care about, it can be helpful in moving us to action. I think of all the moments in my life where worry about something has led me to take important action – to study, to practice, & to experiment with new ideas. In this way, anxiety can be an important catalyst for moving through change.
How can we manage anxiety in the moment?
When my heart is beating rapidly, and my breath is catching in my throat, and I feel myself starting to spin out in a panic, complex mental exercises that require a lot of brain power don’t usually help me get myself under control let alone back to a space of physical & emotional equilibrium.
And this makes sense: Anxiety is a fear reaction, which means that it stimulates cortisol production in our bodies, taps into our animal brain and engages our fight, flight or freeze responses. Whenever we are in fight, flight or freeze mode, we are operating from our limbic system or emotional center, not from our rational mind; in fact, research shows that the parts of a person’s brain responsible for complex rational thinking are actually not online when they are in fight, flight or freeze mode.
I share this context because I often witness people trying to deal with their anxiety by rationalizing themselves out of it. No judgment here; I’ve done this too. We live in a society that generally encourages us to over apply logic & frameworks as a solution to all ailments. 🙂
Unfortunately, trying to make sense of anxiety while in the middle of the experience of it sometimes just makes the whole experience more anxiety inducing & frustrating.
So next time you feel anxious, focus on calming your senses in the present moment (rather than trying to understand or explain your way out of your experience).
When you focus on calming your senses, you are working to calm your nervous system. The calmer your nervous system is, the less cortisol will flood your system. The less cortisol in your system, the less you’ll operate from your fight, flight or freeze center, & the quicker the parts of your brain responsible for higher order thinking will come online. In other words, by calming your body, you can help create the conditions for yourself to make more rational, intentional, & informed decisions about how to handle your anxiety down the line.
So how do you calm your senses? Asking yourself: What calms me down? is a great start. Use what you know about yourself to build your own toolbox for managing anxiety.
For example, I know that hot water calms me down. Sunshine, the sound of waves crashing at the beach, the smell of flowers, the feel of something smooth & solid under my feet, being under a blanket also soothe me. Humming & talking to myself in my compassionate parent voice help too.
So when I notice I’m feeling anxious, I reach for one of these things – I make a cup of tea or take a hot bath. I do my work outside on the porch under the sun or inside under my SAAD lamp. I pull out my bottle of gardenia essential oil. I take my shoes off and walk around focused on pressing my feet into the ground. I turn on some ocean sounds. I swaddle myself in my comforter. I hum to myself. Simple, easy, portable, physical. And I notice that when I do these things at the first sign of anxiety, my body feels better, my mind becomes a little calmer, and I begin to be able to “think” my way forward.
Keep in mind that what calms one person’s senses may not calm someone else’s – for example, my fiancee finds the pitter patter of rain soothing and the sound of waves stressful. I’m the opposite. That’s cool.
Creating a toolbox of strategies that helps you manage anxiety means letting go of the idea that there is one right way to manage anxiety and instead committing to some personal exploration & experimentation. Try on some things to see how they work. Observe how you feel. Keep what works, & let go of the rest.
To get you started, here are some things from the my own & my clients’ toolboxes you can try out:
- Closing your eyes & taking a few deep breaths
- Laying on the floor & feeling the earth beneath you
- Walking or standing & pressing your feet into the ground
- Sitting in the dark
- Curling into a quiet nook or a closet
- Wrapping yourself in a blanket
- Drinking something – tea, water, etc.
- Going outside or sitting in nature
- Dropping into a yoga pose or a quick meditation practice
- Taking a walk or a run
- Dancing or singing
- Self-soothing & reassuring yourself in a calm voice
- Using some essential oils
- Listening to soothing music or nature sounds
- Taking a bath/shower
- Doing something fun and relaxing
What are longer term strategies for working with anxiety?
STRATEGY #1: Learn to recognize patterns in your own experience of anxiety: What are your canaries in a coal mine – essentially the things that when you notice yourself feeling, thinking or doing or clue you in that you’re experiencing anxiety? Do you feel anxiety first in your body like I do – stomach aches, head aches, & other physical signs? Or maybe you notice it in your heard & mind – in the kinds of thoughts you start thinking or the recognition that you’re quick to anger like my clients. The more you learn your own anxiety patterns, the more accurately & quickly you can recognize & respond to them when they start to play out.
STRATEGY #2 Give yourself permission to feel, and practice feeling…ongoing: We live in a society where logic & reason are often treated as more important, more real, & more reliable than emotions. Thus, we are consciously & unconsciously socialized to turn away from our heart space and towards our headspace and to privilege doing & acting over feeling & being. How many times have you felt something emotionally and heard some version of “We don’t have time for that” or “That’s not important” or “Fine, but what are you going do about that?” The implications of this is that at a personal & a global scale we are often not naturally very skilled at feeling or being with feelings, especially difficult ones. And because we often won’t give ourselves permission to inhabit feeling spaces, we also don’t always grow our emotional skills very broadly or deeply simply. Skill is the byproduct of practice. The more opportunities you give yourself to feel, the better you’ll get at feeling, the more you’ll come to know in your bones that feelings aren’t forever, & the bigger your emotional toolbox will get. So, take a page out of Brene Brown’s book, and write yourself a permission slip to feel anxiety, then practice feeling it. The more you do, the more you’ll develop confidence in your own ability to navigate the anxiety that goes along with life’s ups & downs.
STRATEGY #3 Recognize distorted thinking & reframe if possible: Sometimes anxiety is caused by mental activity or stories we are telling ourselves, so it can be helpful to have a look at how you are thinking in moments when you feel anxious. As humans we often engage in distorted thinking. We box ourselves in with binary thinking. We overly focus on the negative. We over extrapolate the implications of situations. Thinking in distorted ways can really increase our levels anxiety because it tends to limit our options, agency & sense of possibility. Check out this list of common thought distortions, and notice if any of these are favorites of yours. Don’t worry – we all have them. I’m a known catastrophizer – it’s why my fiancee has limited my access to WebMD. I have a bump on my arm, and I’m sure it’s a tumor. 😉 Then, next time you’re feeling anxious, analyze your mental narrative. When you recognize some distorted thinking, how can you reframe your thinking so it’s more realistic?
STRATEGY #4 Identify the root cause & focus on what’s in your control: All sorts of different things can cause anxiety. Some of those things can be outside us – like the news, a comment another person makes, or hey, a global pandemic! Some of those things can be inside of us – stories we are telling ourselves or actions we are taking. Being specific about what’s causing us to feel anxious can help us chart a path forward that addresses the root cause instead of just handling the symptoms. This requires a little bit of inquiry & patience (not things I’m great at, but hey, it’s important). Bring some curiosity to your anxiety: “What’s going on here? What’s really causing the experience I’m having?” Once you identify the root cause of your anxiety – maybe it’s a person, a situation, a fear – then ask yourself: “What can I control here? What can I influence? What do I need to accept/let be?” and choose to focus on the things in your control. Anxiety is often amplified when we focus on things that are outside of our control. Being clear sighted about what you have agency over is both a way to take strategic action and a way to lessen your overall anxiety about something.
STRATEGY #5 Recognize that you will adapt and thus “This too shall pass.”: Temporary anxiety is just that – temporary. We feel it in times of change because a lot of things are being upheaved and pieces of our lives are essentially flying all over the place. It’s like a volcanic eruption. But remember, eruptions don’t last forever. Think plate tectonics – the tension builds, the plates shift, a volcano erupts…and then the movement stops. And the transition begins, the ash settles, the plants begin to regrow, the geologists discern where it’s safe to build houses moving forward. Until the next upheaval. Keep in mind that everything in this world is temporary in some way (including the things that we believe to be certain). I say this not to minimize the very real & often very intense experience of a single moment in time, but to offer some perspective, especially against the backdrop of this global pandemic that we all find ourselves in. We’ve experienced a global upheaval. The anxiety you/we now feel at the untetheredness of things is to be expected…and it will pass; it has to. Whether COVID 19 is something we deal with for a short period or for years to come, we will begin to settle into the reality of this new world. We will create new routines & structures to ground ourselves, we will find creative ways forward through our challenges, we will adapt…as we always do. The change will settle, your anxiety will settle as we all find our footing and come to understand what this altered world requires of us.
What’s not helpful in lessening anxiety?
One last thought…while it’s not necessary to be perfect in handling your own anxiety, it can be helpful to recognize things that we, as humans, commonly do that don’t help us manage anxiety so we can practice steering away from them.
Sadly, in my work, I all too often see people shaming themselves for feeling anxiety (and other so-called “negative” emotions) and denying themselves the right to feel.
When they feel anxiety, instead of turning towards it with curiosity & compassion, they meet it with denial or hostility:
- “I don’t have time for this.”
- “I shouldn’t be feeling this way right now.”
- “I’m a bad person for feeling this way.”
- “There’s something wrong with me because I’m feeling this way.”
- “Others have it worse than me so I don’t have a right to feel this way.”
I get it…this used to be my go-to response for negative feelings (I still experience echoes of this now).
But here’s the thing, when we shame ourselves for feeling what we are feeling, we deny our own reality. We expend enormous amounts of emotional & cognitive energy trying to push our feelings away or stuff them down thinking they will disappear…but they don’t. Instead our emotions build up like steam in a pressure cooker until we explode in a fit of rage & resentment or implode into numbness & depression.
And then we often feel even more shame…for having let ourselves get to this place of explosion or implosion.
I always tell my clients, you don’t have to stop yourself from feeling what you’re feeling. That’s not the goal, and it’s not possible without drastic consequences.
If you hold down the lid on a boiling pot of water, you will turn it into a pressure cooker, and that’s dangerous. But to reduce the danger, you don’t have to stop the pot from boiling. You just have to take the lid off – let the steam breathe. The same is true with emotions. You don’t need to stop yourself from feeling anxiety or shame yourself when you can’t. Instead – just let that anxiety breathe. Learn how to calm your senses when you start to get overwhelmed. Get curious about what’s causing you to feel anxious. Focus on what’s in your control. Practice feeling over time.
These are simple strategies that you’ll continue to get better at employing the more you practice them…and if this moment in time is nothing else, it is certainly an opportunity for practice.
With love & compassion,