“Be at one with your in-breath and your out-breath. Be fully alive, fully present in the here and the now. This is a miracle that you can perform at any time.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh~
Hard work & bravery. Have you had an anxiety disorder since you were a child, or teenager? You have been on various medications, tried different therapies? Nothing has stuck, for the long-term? Or, anxiety has begun only recently, due to a specific person or their situation? I have tremendous compassion with you in this. From personal experience, current research, and from helping multitudes of clients, I can offer that the first step is that you must decide you will do the hard work it will take to change this, and dare greatly to try. I mean tough, painstaking, uncomfortable, deliberate work. Not just meds. You’re in the arena, and this is a fight. Don’t back down. When you awaken, you’ll do this work. When you feel immobilized, you’ll try these things. They’ll feel unnatural. When you’re driving, and have to pull off the road to prevent a panic attack, you’ll make yourself, even if your kids are in the car. And because they’re in the car. I can’t promise you can do this work solely on your own. Most anxiety is treated best in partnership with a good somatic or sensorimotor psychotherapist on your team. There is often old shame, trauma, or other junk which is intermingled with anxiety, best treated in therapy. That said…
You want to be fully alive, right? One thing is certain: relief and wholehearted living come when you are disciplined, not haphazard, not inconsistent. Start with the breath.
Breathe. It’s your most loyal, consistent friend. Your lungs breathe in and out for you thousands of times each day and ask for nothing back. Give them some attention. It’s very hard to feel anxious when you are regulating your breathing. Slow, deep, complete breaths will relax you into your body, bringing you out of your busy mind. Try breathing in and out, with awareness of your breath, filling your lungs and nostrils, then releasing through your nose and lungs, saying: “In, out; slow, deep; calm ease; slight smile, release.” What you put energy into will occur more often. You will get better at calming down, and being strong, if that’s what you want to do. Or, you’ll solidify your ability to be anxious and fearful, if that’s where you put your efforts. Learn to be a good breather, proficient at various types of anxiety-managing breathing. Try counting: inhale 1-2-3-4; hold 2-3-4; exhale 2-3-4. There are many other methods. Discover them, and what works for you. Mindfully breathe every morning, and throughout your day. Set your alarm to remember. Stick a note up in your car: Breathe while driving. Carpe diem. A lot can change simply with the breath.
Commit. Start with solidifying your commitment to yourself: to overcome your distress, with deep compassion for yourself. You’ve struggled for years. You want no more of this. Take it on, every single time you’re anxious. Eliizabeth Gilbert’s mom told her something like this: “Afraid of the ocean? Go swim in the ocean. “ “Afraid of spiders? Here’s a rag, go wipe up all the spider webs in the house.” Face your fears. Invite them in. They’re only fears. But breathe through them, engaging your hands, your body. The research shows that both breath & somatic work (sensing and bodywork) are part of what help us heal from anxiety & trauma, making it smaller, manageable. Once we are more calm, we can use other steps too. Anxiety can seem so insurmountable, feel so engulfing, that a decision is crucial. You must decide if you will commit, no matter what it takes.
Allow your feelings. We get busy living when we get in touch with our emotions. Vulnerable. Brene’ Brown has researched feelings and shame for 10 years, with three bestsellers. “Feeling hurts. Be brave. After you fall, stay in the arena, and feel your way back up.” Vulnerability is actually strength in disguise. Decoding emotions is tough, but spend the time figuring out your feelings. You may feel 3 – 4 different emotions, all at once. Ask: “Do I feel anger? More, irritation? Perhaps embarrassment, or even shame arising, too?” Believing that your feelings are irrational, ie. you “shouldn’t feel this,” gets in the way of figuring them out. Discard irrationality. Just observe: “What’s going on? I’m afraid? Wow. Of what? Rejection? Huh! Yes, fear I’ll be abandoned, even.” There, see? They’re feelings, merely but importantly at the same time. Your job is simply to label them, and allow them. That’s both strength and vulnerability, both of which prevent and manage anxiety. Breathe into the emotions you’ve observed now; into them and out from them. Allowing them like you would the emotions of a small 3 – 5 year old child.
Focus, stay awake and aware. Oms –Start the day igniting your senses: Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, body awareness. Pay attention to what is around you. Just notice, without judgment. I suggest lighting a soy candle with a pleasant aroma, as you feel your body awakening. Watch the flame. Ring a singing bowl, initiating mindful presence; ring it, then om, ring it again, then om , then a third time, and om. The wonderful sound can speak to you, suggesting, “Wake up, live fully. Be grateful, right here, right now.” Then live as much of the day this way as you can, awake & aware, not reactive. Even if it doesn’t have deep meaning to you, ritual is a superb way to start the day, a reminder that you began the day mindfully, the way you want to live it.
Embrace mistakes and imperfections. Much of why we have anxiety is because we live in fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of what could happen or won’t happen, fear of not being good enough, fear of rejection, abandonment, being unlovable or unworthy. Dive in on your worst fears with compassion and love for yourself. Partnering with a good therapist helps. Accept that as humans, all of us learn from our mistakes and will make them daily. Perfection is an illusion. You did what you did for many reasons, more complex than we can address here. Notice your thoughts: the first thought may be a fear; try replacing it with a second, more kind or realistic thought. Look at your beliefs underneath your thoughts; review, then alter them accordingly. Repeat. With curiosity, notice what’s happening in your whole body. Ask yourself, what’s going on? What am I experiencing? Then push past it and just DO. Better to complete something than to go for perfect.
Use coaching statements: In tough moments, cope. With brief mantras and coaxings, the urgings and truths you speak to yourself are crucial: “Focus. It’s going to be ok.” “I’m right here, in my body, I’m all right.” “I’m having a panic attack, nothing more.” “I have breathed through these before, and I will again now.” “I’m looking at trees and mountains. I’m alive; I’m ok.” “I’m in my safe home, right here, with myself. It’s all fine.” I’ve been a competitive athlete since I was five, in five different sports, with good coaching. Sport and school are what I know best, with music a close third. I became a coach. Coaching and teaching thoughts come naturally in my mind. For example: “You’re tight. Breathe through it.” “Warm up, relax. Then do it.” In sport, and music, I learned to live the yin and yang, opposite sides of the same coin: “Exert everything, while relaxed.” “Completion is the goal, no such thing as perfection.” “Just do your best today, no pressure,” “Just do this.” I would still be loved by my parents and liked by my coaches or teacher, no matter what. I was not trying to save the world or win the Nobel Prize. This was just a race or a match. Can you imagine the same thing, for yourself now? As you manage daily anxiety, you can say, “This is just a moment. A moment in a day. I’m not trying to save the world. I can get through this. I will.” Come up with your own statements. My piano and vocal teachers taught the importance of the breath: breathe fully and rhythmically, and you’ll play or sing with fluidity. You are your own best coach. Root for yourself, and try following these steps. Practice them until they’re an unconscious, regular procedure.
~Pamela W. Brinker, LCSW
Resources: Brene’ Brown, Rising Strong; Rolf Gates: Meditations from the Mat; Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic, and Eat, Pray, Love; Thich Nhat Hahn: Be Here Now, and No Mud, No Lotus; Pema Chodron, “Getting Unstuck,” (audio and book), and No Time Like the Present; Forsyth: The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety; Tim Robbins, saying, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice. Get busy living, or get busy dying,” quote from the film, “The Shawshank Redemption;” Pixar Film, “Inside Out,” 2015.