Anxiety - currently at record levels in the world of work - is a nasty slippery and contagious beast that, when not dealt with, can hijack and terrorise a person’s body and life. It can be so uncomfortable in fact, that it robs us of energy, vitality and attention for anything outside of ourselves. At worst, it can draw us into an isolated state of self-obsession.
All the more important then, to find ways to relate to unfounded anxiety. Its urgent calls can easily draw you right in and before you know it, you’re anxious about feeling anxious for seemingly no reason and off you go, down the slippery slopes of fuelling the unwanted fire.
Start by double-checking that there really is no reason for your anxiety.
An intelligent, committed man told me that his mind was like a frightening replica of his smartphone. He was no longer able to pay attention, process information, nor rest his mind. He felt permanently agitated. But as far as he was concerned there was no reason to feel like this. His life is OK. Why the anxiety?
Luckily, he has an attentive partner who was one step ahead. She too found herself overwhelmed by waves of anxiety at very unlikely moments. Against all odds, she managed one whole evening without her phone, without the TV - just reading. The next day at work she felt as though her brain had had a complete make-over.
As well as over-exposure to your phone, there are other things to look out for and deal with:
· How balanced is your life? – Is there still enough time for your hobbies, friends, or ‘alone’ time, for example? When life is not nourishing us enough emotionally, the discomfort can start eking out through the cracks.
· How easily do you pick up on atmosphere around you? - We are highly connected with each other and our environment. If you are fine one moment and anxious the next, it might be worth noting what has changed; who might you be with now, whose anxiety you are feeling (as your own)? Maybe there’s a fractious, agitated ambiance at work, which you occasionally really sense and pick up on as if it were yours?
· The ‘novelty’ of stillness - It is not unusual for people who start meditating to report feeling anxious when they first bring their attention inwards. It is not the meditation that causes their anxiety but the ‘newness’ of stillness. When our brains have ‘nothing’ to do, they scan the environment for danger, getting us ready for fight, freeze or flight. This is part of our evolutionary programming. So, do these waves of anxiety present themselves when you take a mini break?
· ‘Backdraft’ - Many of us are adrenalin junkies. Stress has become the new normal and however uncomfortable, our brain is ‘happy’ with the familiar. So, when things start going well for us, we might be unexpectedly knocked sideways by ‘backdraft’. This refers to the feelings of discomfort that arise when we let love, pleasure or success in; or even when we momentarily allow ourselves to feel ‘safe’. Because the brain is always comparing and contrasting, moments of ‘safety’ will make it bring up times from its great memory store, when you were ‘unsafe’. This process takes microseconds and often completely bypasses your awareness. You just feel the distress.
Is it important to know more? Usually not. Once you have checked out your phone use and made sure your life is on an even keel, these flash floods of ‘anxiety for no reason’ are best seen for what they are and dealt with kindly, in any of the following ways.
Try them out and discover what works best for you.
1. Watch from up high
Name them, to tame them. Like finding a vantage point on the bank, from where you can look down on the turbulent river, try to take a step away from your uncomfortable feelings - while they are happening. Get a better perspective so that you can recognise and identify them for what they are. Once these feelings have been named, our emotional brain settles.
2. Feel your feet
The panic we can get into when anxious, distances us from what is really going on. By focussing on the part of your body that is furthest away from your head – your feet, in other words – we can become grounded, quieter and slow down. Either feel your feet from the inside, on the floor or, move slowly and keep your attention on and in your feet. This simple exercise is a highly effective form of mindfulness: it focusses your attention and regulates your emotions. You calm down. Inexplicable waves of anxiety will pass while you are busy focussing your attention.
3. Exhale deeply
By focussing on making your out-breaths longer and slower than your in-breaths, you are intervening in the neurological cascade of events triggered off by the anxiety. The out-breath sets off your relaxation response. By focussing on making it longer than the in-breath, you are actively resetting and calming your nervous system.
4. Strong body posture
There are a number of body postures that generate feelings of strength and confidence. Standing tall – feeling your feet well planted on the floor – with your hands on your hips or raised from the shoulders straight to the ceiling, your anxiety will subside. Make sure to avoid a rigid body and of course, try combining with the deep exhalation or feeling your feet. Two minutes of this will change everything.
This beautiful little exercise which was developed by the famous researcher on self-compassion Dr Kristin Neff, is widely used to deal with our suffering or feelings of discomfort as they arise.
Once you have identified your feelings in your body – and it can be the fear of the anxiety - try to soften them and keep repeating the word ‘softening’ while you are doing this.
Soothe the emotions, keep saying ‘soothe’ in your mind and ask yourself what you need to hear. Maybe just something like ‘may I accept myself as I am’.
Allow. Repeat the word to yourself, while opening your whole body to what is there right now. You’ll be surprised at how soon it dissipates, once you allow it in.
A final word of advice: experiment with these practices. Make them your own, find out which you prefer and remember to be as generous to yourself as you would be to a friend.
Renée van der Vloodt ( M.A. , FHGI ) is a psychotherapist and coach – and has had a private practice for over 20 years, which is now based in Woodchurch (near Ashford), Kent. She also works with people around the world via online sessions.
Renée works with children and adults as a coach and therapist to help them overcome life's challenges and emotional difficulties including stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anger or addictive behaviour.
Renée is a regular contributor to Breathe Magazine and the author of the CD Calm the Chaos of the Creative Mind.