Anxiety is anticipatory. It is concerned with the future, it is worry or fear of a perceived future event, that may or may not come true. When it is deployed by the body in the right circumstances it motivates us into action and keeps us safe, and it helps us to achieve growth. It can actually be pretty cool. However, there are times when anxiety feels like our enemy. When it disrupts our lives and causes us distress, when it brings on physical pain or illness, and when it blocks our ability to be in relationships, we need to find ways to rebalance it. Maintaining your anxiety uses a lot of energy. You become almost entirely focused on some anticipated future event in a sort of tunnel vision, where other aspects of your life are obscured. I like to think of it as holding back a river, how available are we to appreciate the rest of the view, if we are solely responsible for holding back the water?
So, what can we do?
1. Accept the anxiety exactly as it is, really feel how it affects you, and when you’ve felt it, let it pass. In my river analogy imagine letting the water run over you as it passes to its destination. You won’t get knocked off your feet, but you’re probably going to get wet.
Be really aware of the secondary emotions that anxiety can bring on. We’ve all had those days where we’ve allowed ourselves to become angry or frustrated by some 3rd party bystander who asks the wrong thing at the wrong time and we find ourself consumed by anger that we know is disproportionate. Anger is a tactic used by the unconscious to get out of the uncomfortable feelings caused by anxiety because the explosiveness of anger is much more tolerable than the stuck-ness of anxiety. So, notice it, and acknowledge that it’s a symptom of your anxiety.
Also, be vigilant for any self-judgements you may make, there is no space here for “I can’t cope as well as other people” or “I’m useless and stupid”. They simply aren’t true and add a layer of shame to the anxiety that makes things harder. Swap them out with more positive narratives like “I am still going” “I’ve got this” or “I’m doing this my way”
2. Be here and now, and recognise what’s good. There are 2 reasons for this, 1 is that the alarm system in the brain, that may have gone off when you perceived some threat, can be turned off by turning your attention to your environment and using all your senses to ground yourself in the relative safety of the moment. 2 asking yourself ‘what is good right now’ is a good way of gaining some perspective and looking around you at the bigger picture. This in turn means that some of that energy that you’re expending ‘holding back the river’ can be conserved while you stop to appreciate the whole environment. As we’ve mentioned, anxiety is anticipatory, so try asking yourself “what’s happening right now?” and answering with “I’m safe right now, here in this moment I am OK” is a way of bringing yourself to the moment. Mindfulness and similar practices also help with this.
3. Show compassion, towards yourself and towards others. Be kind to yourself, tell yourself all the things you’d like to hear from others. Really think about your needs when it comes to how others treat you, and if you need more kindness, ask for it. Go out of your way to be kind to others, it’s amazing what opening your heart can do to distract you from the anticipation. We often hear of those with life limiting conditions volunteering for charities or raising money in their communities, this is because empathy is about others and it invites people into your heart, which drives out loneliness, which is often a strong feeling experienced by those gripped by anxiety.
4. Take some action, depending on the cause of the anxiety there will usually be something that you can do to prepare for the thing you fear, or something you can stop doing that increases it. For example, if you find that social media is having a detrimental effect on you, turn it off, or limit the amount of time you use it. If you fear that a relationship may end, begin to think about where you can get support, if your home is under threat, speak to people to find out your rights or look around for alternatives. If your anxiety is related to health, plan the practicalities of life with the illness or the logistics of treatment, as difficult as it may be, think about making a will if death is on your mind. Do what you can to prevent having to make judgement calls on things when you are feeling your worst. This will feel difficult now but will help you manage future anxieties. Taking some control and having some agency in your own life can be enough to stop the anxiety overwhelming you, and return it to being a source of motivation. If none of that is possible, that’s OK. What you can do is try wondering what a good friend would say to you. Try and stay with their words of kindness and encouragement. If you don’t have a friend that would tell you the right things, imagine the perfect friend for you who is on your side, and listen to what they say.
5. If what is causing you misery and pain is something that you can give up, then maybe you should do it? If it’s all about chasing/maintaining a particular job, relationship, or possession, etc and its just not working out and causing you misery, can you give it up? Find a new plan? Can you face these fears head on? If what is keeping you in a place of pain is the possibility that the next place might be worse, then maybe its time to just do it. Like hiding under the blankets because if you stick your head out there might be monsters. You could spend all night cowering in the dark, or you can throw off the blanket and turn on the light, feel safe and get some rest.
Of course, I know that these things aren’t easy and it may be that you need some help to work out what your particular fears are. Why you can’t move past the self-judgement? Why giving in feels like failure? Why you continue with behaviours that you know are wrong for you but can’t stop, etc. there are many reasons why these things are difficult and some help to look at your patterns and beliefs may be beneficial.