Anxiety: Beach balls and bullies.
You’re walking down the street enjoying Taylor Swift through your headphones (because your friends wont allow you to listen to her publicly), when out of nowhere a pack of rabid Chihuahuas start running towards you. Your heart rate elevates, your breathing shallows, your vision narrows to see only their tiny, yet ferocious, frothing mouths getting closer by the second. You sprint to the nearest tree and climb to safety with jaguar-like finesse.
Phew, you’re safe.
Your heart rate begins to slow, your breathing returns to normal pace and you gradually start to calm down. You’ve just experienced the stress response – where you perceive a threat and your body prepares to run away or stay and fight. Once the threat is gone, your body returns to a calm state. But lets say it’s a few weeks after ‘the attack of the frothing Chihuahuas’ and you find you’re having trouble getting the event out of your mind, its affecting your sleep and you find your body entering the same ‘stressed’ state it did when there were actual Chihuahuas chasing you. Only, there are no Chihuahuas. There is no threat to prepare for. Some more time passes and you find that same reaction pops up when you’re about to leave your house, go for a walk or visit your friend. Again, there is no actual threat. Hello anxiety!
Now, what we usually do at this point is anything that will ‘get rid’ of that feeling ASAP! Like avoid a certain place, situation, person or activity. In doing so we are rewarded with quick relief – ahhhhh, the anxiety is gone – winning!!! Or so we think. The problem is, what we have actually done is taught ourselves that anxiety is something to be feared, something we must ‘get rid of’ in order to be okay, thus giving it a whole lot of power over us and our actions. So the next time that big scary bully called anxiety makes an appearance, we have no clue how to cope with it. Over time that bully gets bigger and more powerful.
Avoidance of difficult feelings increases their impact upon us. I often use the analogy of trying to hold a beach ball under water – we spend all our energy holding it down and when it eventually manoeuvres its way past our hands, it fires out of the water and high into the air. If we’d only stop pushing it down it would float on the surface in a much calmer way.
So, here are the words no one with anxiety wants to hear – “in order to reduce the power anxiety has over you (dictating what you do, where you go), you need to make friends with it”. ARRGGHH!!! Befriend the enemy??? That’s like saying – you know that really mean kid at school – the one who pushes you around and tells you how you’ll mess everything up and that nothing is going to go well? You need to invite them over, welcome them into your house and hang out with them everyday. It’s a big ask and it seems to go against all instincts. But what if you knew all that bully needs is some understanding and when you change your reaction to their behaviour, they will lose all power over you? Would you give it a go, for the sake of reclaiming your life? Below you’ll find four ways of befriending your ‘anxiety bully’.
Know and understand your bully.
Remember that what’s happening in your body is a normal physiological response to a perceived threat. Your body thinks it needs to get you ready to either run or fight. So accordingly it makes a number of necessary changes including: shallowing your breath and increasing your heart rate to push blood to the bigger muscles of the body; sweating to cool the body as it heats up through exertion; shakiness as the adrenalin finds its way into your body, urging it to move; and nausea as a means of ‘lightening the load’ on your body. These changes can feel unpleasant, but each of them has a specific and necessary role in the fight/ flight response.
2. Calm the reactivity.
Anxiety can hi-jack the rational part of our minds so its important to calm the emotion at least a little with two simple techniques: breathe in slowly and breathe out even slower, and; ground in the present moment using your five senses – what can you see, hear, smell, taste and feel on the outside of your body? This brings us back to whats actually happening right now, not where your mind wants to take you.
3. Observe the physical sensations.
Once you’ve slowed the breath and grounded in the senses, you can observe the various physical sensations and label them by their function (see point 1). E.g., I notice my heart rate increasing, I notice a tingling in my belly, and I notice my palms are sweating. Observe these sensations with curiosity, with a beginners mind and normalise their function.
4. Make space for the feeling: Learn to co-exist.
We can co-exist with anxiety. One way to do so is to make time for regular ‘expansion’ meditation. When you begin using expansion its best to start with a mild feeling and as your confidence grows take on the more intense ones. Try these steps to make space for a difficult feeling, rather than fuelling it by trying to make it stop.
Identify where in your body the feeling is most intense (e.g., in your stomach, in your chest).
Observe the sensation using objective terms such as what shape is it? What colour does it seem to be? How heavy/light is it? Is it moving or still? Does it have a temperature of sorts?
Breathe in and imagine your breath moving all around the outside of the sensation – if it changes size it doesn’t matter, just keep observing it and watching the breath move freely around the outside of the feeling.
Breathe out and relax your muscles around the feeling – knowing you don't have to fight against it, you can allow it to be there and not react to it.
Repeat steps 2 - 4 for five to ten minutes.
Anxiety is fuelled by avoidance. We need to stop avoiding it. Psychological therapy supports this process. So get some extra help when you need to. Let your beach ball float and make friends with the bully - in doing so you'll take back your power!!!