Anxiety is more common than depression, perhaps, because it is more socially acceptable. It is also a body’s natural reaction to stressful situations.
Some anxiety is necessary; we can never get rid of it entirely. It orients us toward threat and danger. It only becomes a problem when our reaction is either disproportionate to what is actually going on (and then becomes an overreaction), or when a threat is perceived rather than actually being real. It is no less distressing for that, though.
When we are anxious we cannot be present because anxiety is not about now – it’s about what might happen in the future. We begin to worry incessantly about everything that can possibly go wrong and when it doesn’t, we attribute this nonoccurrence of the feared event to the fact that we worried and tried to prepare for every contingency. Sometimes, we are not even aware that we do this. Moreover, as we worry about multiple negative possibilities, the fear is amplified because instead of one negative outcome we worry about several.
Worry is a coping strategy we use to alleviate the anxiety. We can’t prepare for everything any more than we can control our environment or people in it. Unexpected things always happen. To handle them we can build our flexibility – emotional and psychological – so that we can bend and straighten back up rather than break when something unexpected happens, big or small. Several things are helpful to start this process.
Here are three things you can start to work on:
1. Use your breath as an anchor – it is always with you and you can use it any time. The following way of breathing is different from how we usually breathe, with our upper ribcage expanding, primarily. It is called “abdominal breathing” because you inhale deeper into your lungs, which pushes out your stomach: imagine there is a balloon in there that needs inflating in your belly, hold for a count of 4, exhale as much as you can, repeat 5-10 times. This works because it is not possible to be calm and anxious at the same time.
2. Increasing our awareness is essential; we can’t change anything we are not aware of. This sounds simple but it isn’t easy: pay attention and notice what is going on around you, where you are, who is around, etc. Observe and describe. This forces you to slow down and be present in the moment.
3. Next, pay attention to what you feel in your body – anxiety is a body’s natural reaction to something stressful, either threat or danger. Obviously, if there is a real danger or threat, remove yourself from the situation. Otherwise, notice sensations in your body and where in your body you feel them. Some people feel tightness in their chest, increased heart rate, heat around the neck, excessive sweating, nausea, etc. Name all that you feel.
Practice the last two when you have a few uninterrupted moments. Soon, you will be able to use these to handle anxiety and even panic attacks wherever you are. It is helpful to write down your experiences.
Next month, I will address other factors that can influence, and be influenced bu, anxiety: emotions, thoughts, and actions.