Living with Anxiety
How do you overcome the experience of feeling a ‘nervous wreck’ to embrace your inner strength and calm? Read on for the 3 steps that transform anxiety to calm through mindfulness.
Step 1. Stop and become aware
Firstly, ask yourself, when you are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety, what exactly is going on in your mind and body? Notice which parts of your body are affected – one or more of these is common:
- Stomach cramps
- Pulse feels quicker
- Heart-beat increases
- Palms and other areas feel extra sweaty
- Areas of tension such as the shoulders or neck muscles
- Shallow breathing
Notice how anxiety is affecting your mind –
- You may feel disorientated or overloaded
- Unable to concentrate
- Vulnerable or emotional
- Feel like running away or hiding
Beware of your inner critic bombarding you with a host of unhelpful comments:
- I’m never going to be any good at this
- Why did I think I could do this
- I’m nowhere near as good as ‘…………’
- Maybe I should have …
- I’m regretting this, why didn’t I …
- What if that happens again?
Add your own lines as appropriate – anxiety always has a back-up buddy to throw stones at you when you are already feeling shaky!
So you can see that this first stage – stopping to really become aware of how anxiety is affecting you, covers a lot of ground.
This awareness is also known as mindfulness.
You may not have even considered before quite how wide-ranging the experience of anxiety is. And much of what you’re experiencing is your body’s sympathetic nervous system* putting your body into stress mode ie.getting you ready to fight or flee in a dangerous situation.
You may not think having that one-to-one meeting with your boss or going out on a first date is the same as fleeing from a sabre-toothed tiger, but your brain doesn’t make that distinction!
‘The greatest gift you can give yourself is surrender – surrender to ‘what is’.
Step 2. Surrender
Surrender doesn’t mean give up in victim-style.
You might berate yourself because you’re feeling anxious, go round in circles in your head and try to put on a brave, strong front. But beneath it all you still feel terrible.
So it doesn’t work to fight against it!
You get caught up in a loop where your negative thoughts elicit the stress response from your brain. The extra adrenaline, will be creating further stimulus for your heart beat, your muscle tension and your stomach butterflies.
Surrender is your strength.
I remember clinging on to a boat while in the sea, somewhere in the world, all ready to do some snorkling. But because I was afraid of the water, I daren’t let go. There I was being buffeted about by the choppy waves as they hit the boat.
It wasn’t until I let go, surrendered to the water, that I was able to float off away from the boat to where the sea was calm.
I’m sure many of you have experienced something similar and it makes a good metaphor for the anxiety that we unwittingly re-create and hang on to.
Surrender – go with the flow of what is happening. You can name to yourself what’s going on:
‘I’m feeling sick’
‘My mouth is dry’
‘I feel overwhelmed’
As you allow yourself to feel into these experiences, you may also identify what’s beneath all of it. While you’re resisting it, you’re too busy to stop and accept that this is – fear.
It could be fear of something that’s happened before, fear you’re not good enough, fear you will make a fool of yourself etc. Acknowledge your fear. Then move on and set to work on step 3.
Step 3 – Grounding and breathing
That’s it. Move away from your thinking mind and all its ruminations.
• Direct your focus to your body, either stand or sit still.
• Get a good sense of your feet firmly planted on the ground, hip-width apart.
• Feel into all areas of your feet – toes, ball, sole, heel.
• Relax your shoulders and lower your chin.
• Bring your focus to your breathing – become aware of your chest rising and falling.
• Settle on the rhythm of your breath. Notice how you can slow it right down and deepen it to include the slow, steady rise and fall of your abdomen.
And while you are focusing on your breathing, your body is sending signals to your brain to elicit the parasympathetic nervous system*.
This steadies your body back to homeostasis. This is your body when it’s calm, relaxed yet still alert. Your adrenaline is reduced and the previous stress responses are reversed.
You are, in fact, working with your own body’s built-in ability to cope with stress.
You may even start to feel good because while you are sitting in stillness, focusing on your breath, your body will now begin the process of flooding endorphins into your blood stream. This is a feel-good chemical mix that includes things like serotonin and dopamine.
So those are your 3 steps to transform anxiety to calm. They take practice. But learning to use the skill of mindfulness in this way is well worth it.
Check out Place of Serenity’s 6-week courses and one-to-one mindfulness & stress management sessions which offer further experiences in managing anxiety and other life challenges.
* Further information about the body’s Autonomic Nervous System (Sympathetic and Parasympathetic)
Yvette Jane – Mindfulness and Meditation Coach