Anxiety can be one of the most debilitating and overwhelming feelings. The older I get, the more I notice my anxieties; and I fancy writing a set of thoughts about how to deal with anxiety. I can think of 11 ways of dealing with anxiety and I am going to serve them up one at a time. When I get to the end I may have thought of some more!
I think of anxiety as fear about what might, or might not, happen in the future. I am anxious about going to the doctor or dentist because of what she might find out and I might have to suffer pain or indignities. I am anxious about an impending speaking engagement or an appraisal at work in case I look a fool or I am criticised. Fantasies about what might happen take up residence in my head and undertake circuit-training, going round and round a repetitive cycle of unresolvable scenarios. This body surges with adrenaline, ready for fight or flight from an imagined danger, but never goes into motion because the imagined dangerous situation isn’t happening right now. I freeze; I don’t breathe; I can’t move.
Anxiety is always future-focused. It is all about what might happen if…
We adopt all sorts of strategies to mask or smother the feelings of anxiety: eating, not eating, drinking, watching TV, listening to music and the radio, socialising, pretending we’re ok, sleep: all sorts of pro-occupation or avoidance, ways to forget or drown out the feeling or to put it and oneself to sleep. The anxiety remains and the deeper self stays unheard.
All of the strategies I propose have two important qualities in common:
- they are intended to bring you back to the present, to reality here and now rather than the fantasy of the future;
- they are kindly (a word I prefer to ‘compassionate’), inviting you to be a friend to yourself.
These are ways that I have found that both attend to the feeling of anxiety, and can help to reduce the strength of the anxiety.
The first strategy is: Breathe.
When anxious (or when we have any strong feeling) we tend not to breathe. It is this body‘s way of staving off the feelings, not letting them build up too much. It is an aspect of tension anticipating fight or flight – the job of the sympathetic nervous system. But if you breathe consciously – slowly, gently, deeply – into the area where you feel anxious – your chest, your heart, your solar plexus, your belly – this does relieve some of the effects of the anxiety. Paradoxically it makes you to attend to the feelings of anxiety, but the gentle, intentional focusing of the breath makes that attention kindly, trustable, comforting. It takes the attention away from thinking about the hypothetical scenario in the future, and focuses on the sensations of this body here and now. The slow, gentle, regular inhale and exhale of the breath allows the body to expand like a balloon and release, inviting the muscles to relax and let go. It keeps your blood oxygenated. It activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It is a profound act of kindness to yourself.