According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, "anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. An estimated 40 million adults in the U.S. (18%) have an anxiety disorder. Meanwhile, approximately 8% of children and teenagers experience an anxiety disorder. Most people develop symptoms before age 21."
You may find yourself in this group. Not to worry! Anxiety can be managed and regulated once you know some of the tricks and you practice them with consistency. In this post I'll say a little about anxiety from a somatic (body-based) perspective and give you some methods for managing yourself in those anxious moments.
In the body-based world, emotions are experienced as charge in the body. They can be felt in the body. Low level anxiety can often be experienced as a buzz or a hum in the body; in the background but present and obvious to the person feeling it. When it's higher level anxiety, breathing becomes challenging, the heart rate can go up, the face may be flushed, movements are faster, thoughts are irregular and create a story that often inadvertently amplifies the growing anxiety. Panic can ensue. Successfully managing anxiety requires working with these thoughts while also working with the body.
If you can think of the anxiety and the sensations as charge in the body then what is needed to manage that charge is to discharge it; to move it. It's physics. Too much emotional amperage flowing through the tissues of your body requires a release valve. These practices act as that valve and will help to shift the immediacy of one's experience when anxious.
What to do? Start by identifying your warning signs and your triggers.
Warning signs are the conditions under which you are more susceptible to your anxiety (or depression or rage and any other emotions.) Ever notice how sometimes a certain thing can set you off and at other times, that same trigger doesn't have much of an impact? This is because certain conditions are or are not present for you that put you more at the mercy of your anxiety. Warning signs are things like, fatigue, hunger, knowing you'll be in new situation later, being in physical pain, being ungrounded, absence of exercise, a busy mind. Warning signs are the conditions that set the stage, for you, for emotional reactivity; in this case, anxiety. Once you know what they are for you, you can pay attention to living in such ways that you minimize these conditions. Or, if you can't mitigate them (for example, if new situations are a warning sign for you, there is no way to avoid new situations without making your world extremely small) you can find ways to support yourself when you have to face a new situation so that it has less impact. Paying attention to your thoughts is a good starting place. (Continue reading for help in working with thoughts, below.) If hunger is one of your warning signs, carry something to eat with you when you go out. If absence of movement and exercise leave you more susceptible to your anxiety, then make exercise part of your daily routine. This is about mastery of oneself so knowing and acting on what you know goes a long way in regulating yourself.
Triggers are those things that set off the reactivity. For example, a messy house, a memory, someone looking at you a certain way, a difficult interaction, a particular thought, a text from someone you're uncomfortable with, meeting someone new, spilling something, slow (or fast) traffic, being interrupted in conversation, a memory, a smell, a dog, a piece of music. This list is endless because it is often subject to a person's history. If bit by a dog, dogs can be triggering. If sexually assaulted by one's uncle as a child, his image or smell of his cologne on someone else can set off a reaction. Those who have experienced trauma can have many triggers. Getting to know these, trauma or not, are an important factor in managing anxiety and general emotional reactivity. Sometimes we can't control the things that trigger us, however. Sometimes the trauma is too embedded in our brain and we need help being non-reactive. If this is the case for you, you might consider seeking a psychotherapist trained in working with trauma so that you can overcome the effects that exposure to certain things, people, places have on you.
Being successful in regulating out of anxious states also requires tending to the both the mind and the body. For the mind, we look at how you talk to yourself about a situation or set of circumstances. How do you interpret events or make meaning of them? We often place meaning on an event that is laden with our history and not applicable to the present-day situation before us. This is habitual and requires mindful attention to our thoughts and the activities of our minds. It is important to recognize if the thoughts are true, in that moment. Is your mind wrapping itself around an idea that isn't actually true and then running with that? It might have been true at one time and that's the hook. But is it true now? Has the mind made up a story, filled in a narrative from the past and inaccurately placed it on the current situation or circumstances?
And if it is true, are there aspects of it over which you do have some control? Are there some ways you can manage your response to that true thought that might lend a sense of mastery or help you settle? Paying attention to what you have control over and what you don't is another inroad to gaining control over anxious states. Is what you're ruminating about something you have control over or not? Can you affect change in this situation that has your mind spinning? If not, then it's of no use to keep mentally chewing on it. Is there something about the situation over which you do have some agency? If so, what is it and what kind of control can you have? Be with that line of thinking rather than staying with what you have no control over. This sounds easier than it is, yes. But consistent attention to this process will work this muscle and it will get easier.
When my son was 16 and out on the road driving those first several months, I saw the invitation in my mind to worry about him out there; to wonder where he was, ie., was he okay? Safe on the road? Had he been in an accident? What if he was lying on the side of the road and he couldn't reach me? It was an invitation I could see but I never really let it go too far. What is the point? It would only elevate my anxiety to no real end, right? And it would affect my present experience in negative ways. I would never be able to relax if I gave attention to that line of thinking. I could spend my time worrying about something over which I had no control (my son's safety or danger on the road) only to find that he returned later that day safe and unmarred. This is not how I want to spend my mental energy or how I want to affect my own states of being. So when I recognized those invitations I would turn away from them. Instead, knowing I'd done all I could to ensure he was in a safe vehicle and that he was as safe a driver at 16 as he could be, I would put my attention on something else; something I was doing or wanted to accomplish that day or I would involve myself in those actions that settle me or feed me emotionally. I'd pick up my guitar and sing. Or head out to the garden and dig around. Or maybe sit on my cushion at my altar and deeply connect. I would use myself in the direction of something over which I did have some agency. I controlled where I allowed my thoughts and actions to be. Putting the attention on something over which you have no control is a dead end and can elevate anxiety, for sure. Putting thoughts where you do have control and taking action in that direction can diminish anxiety and potentially bring you to a more positive and regulated place.
So figuring out warning signs and triggers is a good starting point. Then begin working with your mind in and out of your day as you notice the presence of anxiety. Intervening on your own behalf is much easier at the very onset of anxiety rather than waiting until it is escalated. It's not impossible to wrangle it once it's elevated but it is more challenging to get to a calmer place.
In part 2, I'll go over how to respond to anxiety using the body to help discharge the energy building up in the tissue. We'll go over bioenergetic processes you can use, breath processes that have been proven to activate the relaxation response in the nervous system and I'll share a simple, sensory awareness practice that many of you may already know.