Anxiety is a common yet regularly debilitating experience that human beings live with day-to-day. As with feelings and emotional responses generally, anxiety serves an important purpose in the human condition. It is part of our “early warning system”, a response that tells us there is potentially danger in the environment and that allows us to modify our behaviour accordingly. Anxiety enables us to keep ourselves safe in the world. So, what’s not to like about anxiety?
Well, despite anxiety’s life-saving purposes, it has also become a debilitating experience for thousands of people – for you perhaps it’s constant worries and thoughts that circulate around and around day and night and interrupt your ability to focus on work or be at ease with those you love; or maybe it’s that startled “wake in the night” feeling of butterflies in your heart or stomach and a struggle to get back to sleep. Whatever the symptoms for you, anxiety can, when left unattended, be a distressing experience. For some of us, the natural warning system that is anxiety, has become a little too sensitive.
So how can we attend to distressing, overwhelming anxiety? For the sake of brevity in this article - and to save you from even more time on screen that may be one factor in increasing your anxiety - I’m going to list some possible ways you could go about working with debilitating anxiety.
First of all, for those “wake in the night” moments, you may want to reflect that you are not alone in this moment. Heightened anxiety can leave us feeling alone and cut-off from others, so as you lie in-bed at 3.30am with intrusive thoughts that you can’t shake, it may be helpful to know that there are more than likely thousands out there at that very moment who are facing a similar/related experience.
Secondly, go towards the anxiety. When something is really uncomfortable or disturbing, our instinct as human beings tends to be to push it away, pretend it’s not there. Distraction can have its place in managing debilitating anxiety (of which more later); however, to achieve a longer-term shift in the habitual response that is your heightened anxiety, it can be so helpful to spend some time with it.
A particularly helpful intervention is to pay attention to your breathing. In anxiety our nervous system is activated and clear and regulated breathing can help calm this system. Extend your out-breaths for longer than your in-breaths, for example breath in whilst counting to 4 or 5 perhaps, then breath out counting to 6,7, or 8. I don’t think it’s helpful to be proscriptive about the counting, but the main essentials are to gently extend your in-breath slightly beyond its usual resting rhythm and to extend your out-breath for longer than your in-breath. Continue this until you feel a change in your state, maybe your anxiety eases a little, perhaps your shoulders drop, maybe the thoughts calm for a moment. As I do this exercise now, I notice my jaw muscles relax and I feel calmer in my chair.
In the spirit of going towards anxiety, if you’re feeling creative, you could chat to your anxiety. Get to know it a little better. What might the anxiety have to say, what might you say back? A theme of playing and experimenting can be a good way of taking the edge off heightened anxiety, when the warning system is really going off and shouting “danger”!
Thirdly, find and get to know your safe space(s). This may be in a quiet place in nature, it may be a familiar room indoors, it may be with others, or maybe you are by yourself. These safe spaces can either be literal places you can go to – I regularly go to parks and green spaces near me where I can pay attention to nature yet also be in the vicinity of others – or it could be a safe space you have in your mind that you can bring to focus when you are feeling particularly anxious.
Fourthly, the reassuring and calm presence of a grounded other can really help regulate our nervous system. Someone whose presence says, “it’s OK, it’s safe here”. Someone who is in a different emotional space to the one we’re in at that moment.
Fifthly, try distraction when the anxiety feels particularly pervasive. Sudoku puzzles or crosswords; read something light, fun, enjoyable; draw, paint, scribble; mould plasticine in your fingers, play with clay.
Finally, returning to the experimental and creative theme, maybe you can get curious over time about what situations leave you feeling particularly anxious and what helps. Do you feel more anxious after checking the news headlines on your phone? Maybe you can reduce or ration the amount of times you check the news app. Does exercise help or hinder? I find walking helpful for anxiety, cycling less helpful. It may be different for you. What works, what doesn’t? I find meditation helpful, yet I know for others it can be a source of frustration.
The anxiety I have been addressing in this article is that debilitating anxiety that hijacks our nervous system and renders us passengers to its whims. I return to the start of this article and highlight that anxiety also has a crucial role in keeping us safe in the world, so please don’t be hard on yourself, or your anxiety, when it pops up to say, “danger ahead, take care”. It loves you and wants you to be well in the world.
(With thanks to my parents, the Metanoia Institute gestalt dept team, Jim Kepner, Miriam Taylor).