The past few weeks we have been exploring the power of vision and purpose, as well as the resistance that kicks in when we begin to take steps towards achieving what’s truly important to us. This resistance is often underpinned by fear (fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of success…), the physical manifestation of which is usually felt as anxiety. Physiologically, the stress response is necessary and healthy – our body and mind began to step up a gear in preparation for a new challenge. This is what Mel Schwartz callsthe stress of engagement, but when this moves into distress, then we begin to feel the symptoms exhibited by the 40 million Americans who experience anxiety every year. By anxiety we are not referring to nervousness or excitement, we are referring to the matrix of negative thoughts, emotions and physical responses that impede our ability to think clearly, feel authentically, and react positively.
Mild and occasional anxiety is a normal part of life; chronic or acute anxiety are extreme manifestations of this state and can severely limit our ability to attain, or even envision, our goals. Yet, this is not a war. As with all forces, the harder you push against anxiety the harder it pushes back. Paradoxically, the way to work with this fear-based reaction is to think of it as a dance: bring it close and work with it, don’t try to push it away. The best way to do this varies from person to person, but here are five steps to help get you there:
1- Get to know your body’s response to anxiety
Everyone has a different experience of anxiety, but it almost always has a somatic element to it. For some people it feels like snakes in the belly, for others like a heavy weight on the chest. Some people suddenly have light, empty limbs. Whatever your body’s response is to anxiety get to know it and learn to spot it. Your body will often tell you more accurately than your mind how you are feeling.
2- Learn your triggers
Use your growing ability to spot when you’re feeling anxious and make a note of what was happening just before you noticed the anxiety. What was the trigger for this feeling? Was it something in your environment? Was it another person? Was it a thought? Whatever it was, learn these triggers and identify what you can do to minimize them in your life.
3- Catch your thoughts
The most regular triggers of anxiety – yet the most difficult to spot – are in your mind. Thoughts are subtle and, unless you’re intentionally trying to witness them, usually go unnoticed. Becoming aware of your thoughts in the present moment gives you greater insight into the thoughts that trigger anxiety. It also gives you the opportunity to change how you respond to those thoughts. Nothing builds this ability more effectively than mindfulness practice.
4- Breathe it all in
Breathing is a direct way to manage anxiety as it is happening. By altering the way you breathe you are able to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, eventually bringing yourself back to a sense of calm. Two simple but impactful breathing practices for anxiety are:
The balloon breath:Take a deep breath into your solar plexus. As you inhale, stretch the diaphragm open like a big rubber band. Instead of releasing the exhalation, hold it back against your gently pursed lips and let it out slowly (like holding the end of a balloon). Try to relax your chest and diaphragm while you exhale. The exhalation should be 4 to 5 times longer than the inhalation. You can slowly count if that is helpful (by Peter O’Hanrahan).
Square breathing (also called box breathing): As the name suggests, this breathing exercise can be visualized as a square in which the inhalation, hold, exhalation and hold are all of equal lengths. To begin with, make each four counts:
Inhale to the count of 4
Hold to the count of 4
Exhale to the count of 4
Hold to the count of 4
Repeat until feeling relaxed
5- Change how you think about stress and anxiety
We have become so conditioned to think of stress and anxiety in a negative way. This makes intuitive sense – when our system is on high alert and chronically flooded with cortisol and adrenaline we have an adverse physical response. We burn out or, at the very least, begin to operate at less than our best. Anxiety about stress generates more stress but research suggeststhat if we change our mindset to think about stress as something positive, it reduces our anxiety and improves our performance. This isn’t self-deception – stress is a natural response with many positive benefits. Regarding it as such – a tool to use in taking effective action in the world – allows space for greater acceptance and even gratitude, rather than aversion and avoidance.