By Braden Duncan, LCSW
Do you often feel nervous, fearful or on edge? With a global pandemic constantly threatening our health and disrupting our comfortable routines, it’s no wonder that many of us are afflicted with anxiety. Like a fish out of water, this feeling leaves us uncomfortable and prone to panic. That’s why a lot of people are going to their doctor and asking, “How do I make this feeling go away?” They’re at their wit’s end and it’s keeping them from relaxing with loved ones, making it impossible to concentrate and leaving them with the unnerving thought that they are going crazy.
My gardening grandmother used to say: “A weed is just a flower out of place.” She ended up pulling most of these weeds out of her garden, but she did it with an attitude of respect and compassion. And her garden thrived. There is a lesson in this metaphor that can teach us how to manage our noxious worries and cultivate a calm life.
Anxiety has a life-saving purpose, but when it’s out of place it can seem like a big problem. We might feel like we’re just a complete wreck. But fighting that anxiety like it’s our mortal enemy usually has the opposite effect — kind of like what happens when we swat wildly at a bee to force it away. (I got this great analogy from my friend, Dr. Wally Goddard.) Instead, respecting anxiety and responding with an attitude of self-compassion and curiosity usually works much better. And it leaves our brain more capable of actually solving the real problem.
Anxiety functions to prepare the body and brain to respond to a threat. That’s why I felt my heart racing and my muscles tense up when I confronted that bully in fourth grade. My brain predicted that there was a risk that I’d get hurt if my body wasn’t pumped for peak performance. But the part of the brain that turns on that anxious feeling in our body can’t tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived one. And it doesn’t differentiate between a bodily threat, a social threat, an emotional threat, a financial threat, etc. So, for example, when my mind paints a dark picture of impending financial doom, it’s really not surprising that my heart races and my muscles tense up. So, let’s have a little compassion for ourselves and the part of our brain that is trying to keep us safe, even if it isn’t always on point. This perspective will enable us to see our anxiety as an overly concerned friend instead of an all-knowing boss. “Thank you for the red flag,” we can say to it. “I’ve considered the risks and have decided to move forward anyway.” Anxiety may hang on for a while after this, but it’ll soon get the point and calm down.
Instead of pulling your hair out and exclaiming “Why am I going crazy?” curiously observe your anxiety, and try to identify the threat your anxiety is responding to. The real solution will begin to surface. And this solution might take some good hard work to reverse distorted thinking and change the assumptions that fuel the automatic perception of threat. These underlying ideas and assumptions are usually disguised in the belief that we are just being “realistic.” Don’t buy it. Even if the threat is legitimate, there’s always a more optimistic way of talking to yourself about it.
For some of us, anxiety seems to come out of the blue, and we can’t clearly connect it to fearful thinking. There are a few reasons this might happen. First, it might be that the anxiety is responding to traumatic memory — that automatically puts us on guard when we see, feel, smell, hear, taste or think something that reminds our body/brain of a really scary experience we went through. For some, it was a loved one’s betrayal. For others, a car accident, a terrifying ER visit or losing a child. Your body will react much more quickly to these triggers than your thoughts, and you may never have a conscious awareness of the threat your body is responding to. For those who have suffered trauma, please consider consulting a mental health professional who has experience treating traumatic stress.
Still, some of this out-of-the-blue anxiety surfaces even if our thinking is healthy and our past is peaceful. This kind of anxiety may simply be a response to compounding tension in the body from too much stress for too long. Your brain is an organ, just like your heart, and if it doesn’t get the rest it needs it will probably start acting funny. With muscles tense and body constantly buzzing, your brain may read the bodily signs of threat and turn on the full anxiety response to make sure it isn’t getting taken by surprise. The truth is, your anxiety (or the part of the brain responsible for turning it on) is doing its job, given the information it’s working with. It’s just out of tune with the real problem.
Anxiety can be relentlessly frustrating and build until it makes it hard to function from day to day. But whether or not professional help is required, we can stop judging our anxiety as the enemy and exercise self-compassion. And if our anxiety isn’t really the enemy, then we can be much more willing to bring it with us while we do what we can to create a thriving life.
Here are 10 steps you can take in the moment to change your brain’s response and calm down anxiety.
As soon as your feel anxiety building:
1. Curiously notice both your physical and emotional symptoms. In your mind, simply state the facts. I’m feeling worried. I feel nauseous. I’m clenching my fists. I feel like something bad is going to happen. I’m starting to feel short of breath. Try not to determine what these symptoms mean. Just notice them like you’re noticing clouds in the sky that come and then pass.
2. Take a moment to relax your muscles. Picture in your mind the muscle group that is tight, and let the tension release as you breathe calmly, letting your body relax a little more each time you breathe out. This will help shift your brain energy from the automatic emotional brain back to the logical, reasonable brain.
3. Connect the dots between your current symptoms and the threat. Maybe it’s an exaggerated assumption (If I show anxiety during this talk, everyone will notice and talk about it behind my back) that leads to a threat (and my reputation as a good speaker will be ruined). And one perceived threat can lead to other perceived threats (and then I’ll get fired!). Or maybe it’s a traumatic experience that has left you feeling on edge when making big decisions. Or a loss that you feel deeply in certain seasons. Either way, call it for what it is.
4. Replace pessimistic assumptions with optimistic alternatives. Most people feel anxious when they give a talk. I can give a good talk and be anxious while giving it. My performance won’t be based on one talk. Because pessimistic assumptions disguise themselves as “realistic,” believing the optimistic alternative can feel like a leap of faith. But remember, anxiety is encouraged by a narrow view and often doesn’t see that an optimistic outcome is just as likely.
5. Acknowledge your current safety. At this very moment, I am perfectly safe. Meaning that right now, right here, I am in no danger of life or limb. I know a meteor could fall on me or you at any moment, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Potential danger is not current danger. And if we can help your body realize it doesn’t have a current bodily threat to respond to, it will relax — leaving you feeling less anxious.
6. Deepen your muscle relaxation. Keeping your muscles relaxed as you go through this process will help them unlearn their automatic panicked response. Frequently check in with your body to relax any muscles that have tensed up.
7. Commit to action. Avoiding things that make us anxious validates the threat and increases anxiety over time. If I didn’t have this anxiety, what would I be doing? What relationships would I be attending to? What would I be working on? Tell anxiety it can stay or go, but either way, you’re moving forward with what is important to you.
8. Imagine the anxiety as an observer standing by to alert you, the expert, to a potential danger. As the expert, you’ll have to sometimes overrule its suggestions because you can see things more clearly than it can. Separate it from yourself, and commit to action even if it sometimes disagrees with you. If this action feels like too much, break that action down into the smallest step you are willing to take. No step is too small as long as you aren’t altogether avoiding solving the problem.
9. Curiously notice the change in your emotions as you act.
10. Keep practicing. Our brains are plastic. They can change and adapt and become healthier through good choices. This isn’t always easy. It requires us to yield our automatic thoughts and responses to a quiet part of our soul that says, I can do hard things. I can adapt. I can choose how I think. I can choose who I will become.
Braden Duncan, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lowell who specializes in treating anxiety and grief throughout the aging years. He operates a private practice, Integrated Counseling Solutions, that partners with clients’ medical providers to keep care connected. Video appointments are available by visiting www.ics-nwa.com or calling (479) 278-4323. ◊