I’ve struggled with social and generalized anxiety in some way for most of my life, but never really noticed it until I was about 25. I was suddenly having panic attacks multiple times a day, seemingly out of the blue. This lasted for months, and it took about a year to stabilize after starting therapy, being prescribed anti-anxiety meds (and going off of them too quickly), and doing 6 week detox diet.
Since then, I’ve been much more aware of my anxiety and in conversation with it. So much of the time, though, I still respond to it by running like hell: going out, drinking, spending, socializing, eating badly and watching tv. Anything I can do to GET AWAY FROM THE FEELING.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
You can’t make anxiety go away by dissociating from it or freaking out about it.
And the more you try to push it away, the longer it’s going to stick around, both in the moment and in your life.
Of course, trying to suss out and eliminate the causes of your anxiety is a very worthwhile pursuit, but considering it’s likely a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological causes (all of which are interrelated, as our thoughts and lifestyle affect how our genes express), we still have to deal with it in the meantime. And I’m going to give you a big tip that’s been working for me like a goddamned magic wand. Here’s the truth:
Anxiety is like quicksand. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink.
Sure, distracting yourself and disconnecting from your body will help you avoid feeling it. Sort of. For a bit. But refusing to face it robs you from a sense of agency in your life! You end up feeling like you’re constantly running from this terrible ghost force, and you’ll eventually realize that all the things in your life that drag you down exist due to your lack of willingness to stand and face this thing.
So what do you do? You sit with it! And yeah, it’s not really pleasant. Frankly, it reminds me of being at one of those Russian spas where you’re all in the hot tub all happy and then you have to go into the freezing cold tub and you’re trying to mentally get all psyched up to do this awful thing like WHO DOES THIS, but then you get in and you huff and puff and dunk your head and get out and you feel kind of immortal for a second…
That’s just me. Point is, anxiety doesn’t have to be this big huge evil evasive monsterthing.
Anxiety is just a feeling. Like an itch. Or an ache. Like nausea. Or a stubbed toe. Anxiety is just a feeling in your body.
What makes us freak out is less the physical discomfort of panic, fear, dis-ease, but our INTERPRETATION of the physical sensation.
If you stop to listen, you may notice yourself running through these thoughts in a frantic circle:
Why is this happening to me right now?
I don’t like this! I can’t handle this!
I have to make this feeling stop.
If this is happening again, have I failed?
What do I need to change about myself or my life to be better?
This is my fault. I’ve done something wrong.
Okay, I’ve learned all these new healthy coping mechanisms. Should I start with breathing? Or with feeling my feelings? Maybe I need to journal. Wait stop, just breathe…
A common sentiment in the self help world is, “get out of your head and into your body.” I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with the head. It’s not your thinking brain that’s the problem. It’s your INTERPRETATION of reality. Specifically your JUDGEMENT of reality.
So here’s the trick: If you can stop when you notice anxiety coming on, and sit down and allow the anxiety to happen… if you can see your head as THE EXPERIENCER of the sensations in your body, if you can separate the two and see that anxiety as an itch… if you can remove the PERSONAL STORY from the anxiety, you can sit with it in relative calm. You can ride it out. And I’m willing to bet that it will go away more quickly, and you will feel like a GODDAMNED SUPER HUMAN for having this monster for tea and watching it leave when it’s ready.
How To Tame Your Anxiety
My therapist has been guiding me through this practice for years now and I only really finally GOT IT this weekend. It takes some dedication and a lot of awareness, so take a moment to make an agreement with yourself NOW to try to do this as often as you remember to.
If you start to wig, the best thing you can do is slow down, STOP, sit down, and go through this process of checking in:
First, try to halt your thoughts about the anxiety itself and just commit to this process.
See the anxiety as nothing more than a physical sensation. An itch or an ache that you just have to deal with for a few minutes.
Separate your head (the experiencer) from your body (the sensation).
Take three deep breaths. Long and slow.
Start getting into your body. Notice it. Feel it. Notice yourself IN it. Notice yourself in the room.
Now, find the place in your body where you feel the anxiety and notice what it feels like. For me it’s almost always in my upper chest. It feels like tightness with electricity on top.
Note: you may find that this exercise increases your anxiety for a few minutes. This is okay. Hell it’s even good. Now you’re sitting in conversation with the enemy. And it’s about to become your teacher and friend.
Imagine that physical sense of anxiety as an object. A ball of energy or something.
Now that you have found it, commit to allowing it to be there. Welcome it.
Sit with it inside of you. Breathe around it, and make space for it. Keep feeling it. Keep noticing it.
Let it do whatever it wants. It may increase, or it may pulsate, or may grow and dissipate, leaving you numb (I had this experience for many years as my body’s automatic response to large amounts of stress or fear is to numb out and go full on brain fog. I still don’t understand why this happens, but it’s okay. It’ll start happening less and less the more you do this).
If you notice yourself squirming or judging, just let those thoughts pass and trust in the process. Know that you got this. It ain’t gonna kill you.
And that’s the practice. And you might be surprised how well it works.
Wishing you all well on your journeys, dear Fools. I’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!
My disclaimer is the usual. This is what is currently working for me in my current situation. It also helped a LOT during my panic attack year, which was significantly worse. There are other great, reliable, proven ways to reduce or eradicate your anxiety, like diet changes (removing sugar, alcohol, possibly gluten and other things), exercising, taking vitamins and supplements, going to therapy and working on your self-talk and self-love, desensitizing yourself to triggers like crowds or one-on-one meetings, taking medication, etc. This is about managing your anxiety when it comes around.