Updated: Dec 31, 2019
Anxiety is incredibly uncomfortable. The tight chest, shallow breathing, heart racing, muscle tension. The frantic mind that won't rest. If you're like I used to be, the anxiety comes on seemingly out of nowhere (I'll have more to say on triggering thoughts in a later post). All of a sudden I would be trapped in this overwhelming tension and have no idea why or how to break out of it.
I spent a good chunk of my 20s trying to figure out how to make my anxiety go away. I tried exercise and pounding the pavement to exhaust my body. If I pushed my muscles to the brink, I could collapse and finally rest for a brief time. I tried cocktails in social situations, on dates, and with new people I hoped would become friends. I felt awkward and it helped me loosen up temporarily. I tried shopping. When I felt awful, there was a brief high I got from new makeup or clothes. These were band-aids that helped for a short time but the anxiety always resurfaced with a vengeance.
Eventually I learned that my effort to get rid of the anxiety was actually the problem. Have you heard the Carl Jung quote, "What you resist not only persists, but will grow in size"? Turns out it's true. The resistance makes the anxiety worse and keeps it sticking around longer. It's kind of like that experiment when someone tells you not to think of a pink elephant. In all your effort to push the pink elephant image out of your mind, it becomes all you can think about. So when you have the thought, "I don't want to feel anxious anymore" that's when your old friend Mr. Anxiety tightens its hold on you.
What do you do instead? These suggestions are based on the tenets of mindfulness and cognitive therapy. This is my cut-to-the-chase approach:
1. Get curious about your anxiety. What does it feel like in your body? Some common sensations are tightness in the jaw, feeling like there's a weight on your chest, upset stomach, constricted breathing. When it reaches the intensity of full-blown panic, this can feel terrifying and physically painful. You can also notice the times the anxiety comes on. Is it when you're home alone and about to prepare for an exam? When you're trying to get out of the house in the morning to drop both kids off at school and get to work in time? When you're waiting for your date from last night to finally text you back? You can recognize the anxiety more readily when you know how it feels and what situations are most likely to elicit it.
2. Label the anxiety while removing judgment. Most people notice the sensations above and have a negative judgment of the experience. How could you not? When anxiety is coming on and your body is starting to ramp up, the natural response is, "Noooooo. Here it comes AGAIN!" Or, let's be honest, it's usually, "Holy *&%^@!!!" Try something else instead. Notice the anxiety in a neutral way: "Oh, there is anxiety."
3. Lean in. Allow for the anxiety. Welcome it. This is when clients usually look at me with an expression saying, "Are you kidding me?" I get it. You've spent months or years trying to exercise/drink/shop [enter your favorite maladaptive coping strategy here] the anxiety away. Now I'm telling you to invite it in. Try to stay open-minded about doing something different this time. Visualize yourself opening to the anxiety, permitting yourself to feel the sensations, breathing into the experience. You can also talk yourself through this, "It's okay. It's just anxiety. Come on in."
4. Watch what happens. There is something remarkable that occurs when you bring awareness to your anxiety and lean into it without judgment. It may persist for awhile. Keep watching. It will lighten, lessen in intensity, and eventually you'll find that you have moved through it to the other side. You can take a deep breath again. You feel calm and contentment. Take note: It's critical to release the goal of making the anxiety go away. (That's resistance. Watch for thoughts like, "It's still here! When will it be over?") Instead the new mindset is to allow. When we do so, we fully experience the anxiety until we don't need to anymore. It's like a cloud that moves in and passes.
My experience has been that building this skill set is like working a muscle. The more I stay vigilant, the more I commit to this practice, the easier it becomes. I still have anxiety, although it's infrequent and tolerable now. Anxiety is a normal, human emotional experience. Life feels frightening at times and the anxiety is there for a reason, to protect my family and I. Sometimes it's warranted (like when a driver barrels through a red light in front of me) and other times I'm misreading a potential threat (like when the chest pain was just a strained muscle and not a medical emergency). Whatever the trigger, I have the tools for riding the anxiety wave. I would love to hear your questions and experiences in the comment section below.