There is so much anxiety in the world today. Anxiety-related issues are by far the biggest search terms people google when they are looking for counselling. In this article, I would like to look at how our natural response to anxiety can increase it, and how a different, counter-intuitive response can allow us to calm ourselves instead.
Anxiety is something we are first alerted to by sensations in our bodies. Different people are aware of bodily sensations to different degrees, so you may or may not know what anxiety feels like in your own body, but the sensations will always be there if you are anxious. Neuroscience and biology are making this clearer and clearer: there are no emotions without bodily sensations. Perhaps for you, anxiety starts as a gripping or a tensing in your chest or throat. Perhaps there is a sinking feeling in your stomach like the ground is falling away, or as if you are descending very fast in an elevator. It will be a little different for everyone.
What is pretty universal, though, is that when any of us feel these feelings, our natural reaction is to want to make them go away. Anxiety is a very uncomfortable thing to feel, so this is natural enough. If we hadn’t evolved to be uncomfortable around anxiety, the human race probably would not have survived – it is anxiety and fear that made our ancestors run away from lions and sabre-toothed tigers!
So, when we feel anxious, what do we do? Generally speaking, we try to get rid of anxious feelings in two ways: either we act to resolve the situation that is making us anxious, or, we try to distract ourselves from it. Now, at any one time, either of these strategies for dealing with anxiety, acting or distracting, can be effective. For example, if you are anxious about money, and you think your boss would be willing to give you a pay-rise, well, it’s probably a good idea to ask for one! In this example, the discomfort of anxiety motivates you to act effectively to resolve the anxiety. Distracting from anxiety can be a good technique for dealing with it too. For example, if you have an exam coming up tomorrow, and you have done all your revision but can’t stop worrying about it, distracting yourself from the anxiety can be very effective. Go to the theatre, go to the cinema, play some music, do some exercise, see a friend; anything that will take your mind off the exam tomorrow. You will probably end up getting a better night’s sleep and performing better in the exam through doing it.
However, many of the things we are anxious about are not like the above examples, and our attempts to act or distract ourselves just make things worse. Often, the situations that are making us anxious aren’t easily solvable by doing one simple action, like asking for a pay-rise. Trying to distract oneself from worry about an exam is one thing – the exam will be over tomorrow – but what if the thing you are trying to distract yourself from is there day after day, or even year after year?
This is where these strategies to resolve anxiety can become counter-productive. An attempt to act, for example, can become thinking about a situation obsessively. One can end up finding it difficult to sleep, as one’s mind spins round and round, looking for a solution. A good example might be being very anxious every time you are going to meet someone. In this situation, one can run through every scenario; what they might say, what you might say. Of course, there is no way of knowing what they actually will say, and often all that thinking and worrying just makes one even tenser when you meet the person, thus making it very awkward, and it becomes harder rather than easier to have the conversation.
The natural attempt to find an action to resolve the anxiety, by thinking the situation through, actually just increases it, making the situation worse! Often, distracting oneself from situations can increase the anxiety too. Perhaps there is something you need to talk to someone about, but you are anxious about doing it. It can be tempting to put it off if you are worried about it, but somehow it never seems to be the right moment. What happens is that the longer you put it off, the bigger deal it seems. Sometimes, what might have started as mild anxiety becomes more of a formidable dread the more you put it off. It’s the same with unpaid bills – when you are strapped for cash, it is tempting to put off thinking about them. But the bills just get bigger, and more and more urgent to pay, and thus more and more tempting to avoid to get away from the anxious feeling. The more you distract yourself, the more anxious you end up feeling. It becomes a vicious circle.
So, it seems that in many cases, trying to resolve anxiety by acting doesn’t work, and neither does distracting. It is here that I would suggest my alternative strategy to acting or distracting: turning towards the anxious bodily sensations I mentioned earlier and giving them space to simply be there in your mind. At first, this might sound like a very strange idea: if you want to stop feeling anxious, why would you give attention to the anxious body sensations?! Well, there is a very logical reason for this, as a lot of our feelings of anxiety come from our response to the anxiety itself. The more we worry about the thing we are anxious about, the more energy we give to planning how to stop the anxiety, and very often, the more anxious we become. It’s a bit like trying to stop a fire by pouring petrol on it! Distracting from the anxiety can also give it more power. We distract ourselves because we are thinking “this is too big and scary to deal with right now”, and sometimes the more we do this, the more big and scary our situation seems.
On the other hand, if we can simply be with the sensations of anxiety in the body, as they arise, they often become more bearable. Something in us loosens up and we become both less anxious and more creative in our response to our anxiety.
You might want to try doing this exercise just now. Sit somewhere comfortable, and spend some time scanning through your body.
How do your feet feel right now? Your legs? Your belly? Your chest? Take a few moments to feel each part of your body, all the way up to your head. What is there in each part? Heat? Cold? Tingles? Tightness? Itches? Have the attitude that every sensation in your body, comfortable or uncomfortable, is allowed to be there. We are not trying to change anything or make anything go away. If you drift off into thought, that’s not a problem either – just direct your attention back to the body as soon as you notice. Don’t give yourself a hard time – it is natural for the mind to think.
Notice how your body feels, and then notice in particular one place where you hold anxiety in your body. Is it a tight chest or throat? Something in your belly? Just spend some time with this place, without needing anything to happen. Allow yourself to be with the sensations you feel. If it changes, that’s fine. If it doesn’t change that’s fine too. Some people find it useful to take the attitude of making friends with an anxious sensation. You might say “hello” to the sensation, see it as something of a ‘guest’ in your body that you are welcoming in. Sometimes it can be helpful to warm your hands by rubbing them together, and placing a warm, welcoming hand over the anxious sensation as you stay with it.
I have often been surprised how, when clients have come into the therapy room in a state of high anxiety, the speed at which this exercise can help them move to a more relaxed mental space. It may not resolve the anxiety completely, but it often reduces it. Sometimes just even a minute or so noting where the anxiety is in the body can be helpful, although usually between five and 15 minutes on this exercise is more helpful. I would recommend starting with a shorter time and see what works for you.
The one note of caution I would add is that a few people find being with bodily sensations overwhelming initially. If the exercise above feels too much at any point, I would say to trust your instincts, stop doing it, and consult a mental health professional before taking it any further. Body awareness is helpful for almost everybody in the end, but there are ways of proceeding very slowly with it that are particularly helpful for some people. This is likely to be particularly true if you have serious trauma in your life history.
Most people, however, find the above exercise helpful!