‘My body was so tense. It was like a weight pressing down on my chest. It felt difficult to breathe. My brain felt wired to the point I couldn’t think straight. I felt so anxious I was paralysed, unable to know what to do next.’
This brief snapshot gives just one idea of how anxiety can be lived and experienced both as a feeling but also in the body and in the mind.
Most of us feel anxious some of the time. When anxiety becomes the dominant feeling, then it might be appropriate to start looking at what it’s telling you and taking steps to address and manage it.
Anxiety tends to be a surface feeling, one that masks others such as anger, sadness, frustration and fear. It helps keep us safe from those feelings when we’ve learned that having them isn’t safe. Maybe an experience or repeated experiences in our past led us to block out or mask those feelings and we’ve kept on doing so as a learned response throughout our lives.
We often spend a lot of energy avoiding uncomfortable feelings, including anxiety. In extreme cases the avoidance can lead to compulsive and addictive behaviour. If you find it difficult to sit in stillness, find yourself always drawn to being busy, say internet browsing, phone texting, shopping, that may be a sign of underlying anxiety which you are consciously or unconsciously trying to avoid.
So anxiety, while uncomfortable, can also be a good barometer for our wider emotional weather patterns. Often in counselling, getting to know our anxiety, really noticing when it arrives in the sessions, what soothes it, what magnifies it can provide both client and counsellor with rich information about our lived experience and what might lie beneath.
Having a healthy curiosity and being able to get to know the anxiety without being consumed by it can be a transformational step in counselling.
That said, it’s normal to want to reduce the intensity of the feeling and find ways to manage it, so here are a few tips and techniques that might work for you:
By bringing our awareness into the present moment, and being attentive and observant of this, we can move away from overpowering anxiety. Take a moment to ground yourself, a few deep breaths and then see if you can simply observe your current experience. How are you feeling, what are your thoughts? Are they distracting or welcome? How is your body in this moment? What is around for you right now, not what happened earlier or might happen next ?
Meditation has a similar effect to mindfulness; sometimes they can be one and the same. A mindful breathing meditation can be a powerful technique to bring you away from being ‘in the feeling’ of anxiety and to observe it with detachment.
A simple counting technique and deep attention to your breath are simple ways of establishing a meditation practice which can help you change your relationship to your anxiety. You can find out about mindful breathing here: https://thebuddhistcentre.com/text/mindfulness-breathing
3. Attention restoration and stress alleviation through contact with nature
Taking some time out in nature can be a powerful relief for anxiety. Research shows that blood pressure and heart beat drop when we are in green spaces. The calming influence also helps us bring our attention back to our experience. It’s another form of mindful practice. Equally gardening or spending time with a pet can have the same impact.
4. Being active
Exercise is good for the body, it goes without saying. But it’s also good for the mind. If you can find space in your life to be physically active, it can help quell anxiety, by providing an alternative focus and improves your relationship with your body. Of course exercise is also associated with the release of endorphins, the pleasure giving chemicals in our system so there is also another benefit as well.
This isn’t for everyone, but writing down your experience helps develop both awareness and language for your feelings. For some people, the discipline of regular writing about their emotional life, the highs and the lows is a powerful therapeutic tool. It’s another way of creating distance between the emotion and lived experience; not to deny it or suppress it but to be aware of it, without becoming completely identified with it.
These techniques are just some which can help you change your relationship to anxiety and deepen your awareness of how it comes about. From there you can start to explore what other feelings lie below and to welcome them all as part of your lived experience. Starting to notice and be curious about your anxiety is a great place to begin.
By Matt Fox Counselling in Totnes, Paignton and Newton Abbott www.mattfoxcounselling.co.uk
Photo by Harry Koopman, licensed under Creative Commons
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