Anxiety can take a perfectly lovely, intelligent, capable person and turn them into a cowering, fearful mess. In fact, anxiety is infamous for its tendency to grossly over-exaggerate potential danger. To make its point, anxiety will hijack your nervous system and convince you that your life is in immediate peril, even when it’s clearly not. That’s just not nice. I think we can all agree that anxiety is a pain-in-the-patootie. It’s also a sneaky, meddling, self-important busy-body with a flair for drama. We’d probably all be better off if we could just get rid of it, right?
Wrong! I know it’s tempting to want to cleanse our systems of all anxiety—past, present, and future—but we need anxiety from time to time. Anxiety helps us detect actual danger and calculate potential risks. Furthermore, a little bit of anxiety can actually help us perform better because it motivates us to want to do a good job. I can speak very personally to this last point after doing a TED talk in April 2017.
This was an amazing experience and I’m so glad I did it, but whoa! I’m pretty good with public speaking but doing a TED talk felt like a whole different game. Folks, I’m not ashamed to tell you that I had some major pre-TED jitters. Those jitters, although stressful, helped motivate me to do my best. In fact, those jitters encouraged me to practice my TED talk about 100 times before actually performing it on stage with cameras rolling and a live audience in front of me. And it went pretty well! In case you missed it, you can check it out here.
So, we need anxiety at times to help us navigate life. Sometimes, though, anxiety gets too full of itself and starts to hold frequent parades through our mental space, creating problems like anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders are really common, with about 20-25% of us affected at any given time. What causes anxiety? We aren’t entirely sure yet. Preliminary research suggests that genetics may play a role, meaning that some people may be born into the world with a nervous system that is more sensitive than average. These people are usually more gifted at scanning for potential danger. Unfortunately, though, this ability to scan for danger comes at a heavy price these days because most of us live fairly cushy lives, relatively speaking, free from the daily, imminent threats of saber-tooth tigers, natural disasters, and deadly plagues. Yes, we will all face hardships in our lives, some of us even surviving natural disasters and severe illness and even war, but most of us will not have to deal with these threats on a daily or even yearly basis.
Anxiety can also come from our environment. If we are surrounded by worry-warts, we are going to learn to worry because anxiety is very contagious. Likewise, if we are exposed to chronic, high levels of stress, we become more vulnerable to experiencing anxiety. Interestingly, the American Psychological Association (APA) is conducting ongoing an ongoing research study that is letting us know just how stressed we are in the US. And my goodness, as a nation, we are stressed! Although we need anxiety to help us navigate life, many of us are struggling with high levels of stress and anxiety that are not good for us. In fact, in November 2017, the APA shared that about two thirds of us describe being quite concerned about the current state of our country. You can read their actual findings here.
When high anxiety is triggered, our bodies respond as if there is an imminent threat, which kicks our nervous system into overdrive. A nervous system in overdrive can affect all kinds of other systems in our bodies, including but not limited to cognition, digestion, and sleep. Let’s focus on the cognitive aspects for a moment. When our nervous system is in overdrive our brain is not as able to process information logically, engage in reasoning, and maintain perspective. An anxious brain does not always know the difference between an imminent threat (encountering a momma bear with her cubs on your hike) and an anticipated threat (like that root canal appointment later in the week or the possibility of getting rejected on the phone interview for the job you really want). Because our brains cannot tell the difference between these types of threats, our nervous systems may get riled up in very similar ways: heart palpitations, shallow breathing, muscle tension, and thoughts sharply focused on the perceived danger. People suffering with intense anxiety often have rapid-fire thoughts full of exaggerations about potential dangers. These anxious thoughts can be very, very convincing and can lead to feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm.
Ack! This is too much! What can we do to reign in anxiety, that sneaky, drama-prone pain-in-the-patootie?! There are many ways to work on anxiety but there’s one I’d like to focus on: mindfulness. In my mind right now, mindfulness is coming onto the stage, wearing a cape and assuming a superhero posture, with superhero music blaring. Too much? Well, how about if it comes onto the stage as a wise, humble, old teacher, radiating wisdom, the whole scene enhanced by serene wood-flute music? Or you can come up with your own imagery. Now where was I?
Right, mindfulness for anxiety. As an intervention for anxiety, mindfulness actually allows the person to let go of the fight with anxiety. This is very important because we can inadvertently make something stronger by fighting with it! Cue the superhero music and cape again: Ba da bum pa—Mindfulness! Or did we decide on serene wood-flute music? Anyway, mindfulness teaches us not to fight with our anxiety. Instead, mindfulness teaches us to observe our anxiety from a compassionate, accepting stance. Right now, it’s entirely possible that your’e asking yourself, “But WHY would this crazy woman be asking me to accept my anxiety when I HATE it?!” That’s a great question that I’d like to answer with a little exercise. Go with me for a moment. Please do not think about the pink elephant sitting outside your door right now or why it’s there or how it got there. Again, do not think about it. Just don’t think about the pink elephant at all. Every time you think about the pink elephant, push it out of your mind and tell yourself to not think about it. DO NOT THINK ABOUT THE PINK ELEPHANT! Now, answer honestly: what have you been thinking about for the past 30-60 seconds? This is asilly example of what can happen inside our minds when we try to push thoughts out and tell ourselves not to think about them. Instead of ridding ourselves of the thoughts, we may actually be obsessing over them.
Ok, another exercise. If you have two hands available, push them against each other as hard as you can. Notice what is happening in your arms, shoulders, and hands. Keep pushing. And push some more. Do you feel your muscles tightening and straining? Go ahead and release your arms and notice what changes. When we push something away, physically or mentally, we tense our muscles. When we are highly anxious, tensing our muscles can actually worsen the anxiety by reinforcing the heightened arousal of the nervous system, which is exactly the opposite of what we want to happen. When we let go, our muscles relax. Learning to be mindful of our anxiety gives us a a few more options for responding to our anxious thoughts and feelings. We can learn to surf the wave of anxiety rather than try to push it away, allowing ourselves to go with the flow and know that the wave will pass. We can learn to have compassion for ourselves while we’re experiencing anxiety and ask ourselves, “What can I do to help myself through this?” With an accepting, compassionate attitude towards the anxiety, we may actually take away some of the energy that serves to fuel the anxiety and keep it going. Perhaps we can simply let it be.
Cognitive defusion is a mindfulness-based technique that can really help with anxiety. I’ve written a couple of blogs about it:
Phew! We’ve covered a lot of ground here: TED talks, anxiety parades, saber-tooth tigers, bears, superheroes, root canals, flute music, pink elephants, surfing the waves of emotion, and cognitive defusion. Are you interested in getting a boost from mindfulness? Excellent! I specialize in offering mindfulness-based interventions for anxiety and other problems so feel free to check out my website for more information. Also, please check out my 6-week mindfulness class, Mindful Life, which is offered several times a year. There are additional resources listed on my website here. One resource I highly recommend is the book The Mindful Way Through Anxiety by Susan M. Orsillo and Lizabeth Roemer. It’s a great read.
With gratitude and well wishes,
P.S. If you think anxiety is a pain, read my blog about that a-hole depression here.
P.P.S. Exercise is another important intervention for anxiety and depression. And, yep, I have a blog about that, too. Check it out here.
P.P.P.S. Breath practices are great for anxiety. I have several breath practices posted on my blog:
P.P.P.P.S. We are learning more about nutrition and anxiety. Check out my blog on nutrition and mood here.