How to make sense of, and cope with anxiety
“I was just in a meeting, when I suddenly felt sweaty, my heart racing, and like I was going to die…I think I was having a panic attack?”
“Every time I open my emails, I just get this flood of anxiety, my head spins out and I just can’t focus on my tasks.”
In the last year, I have heard more people talk about, wonder about and getting anxious about anxiety than in all my years of coaching. It’s not surprising, given all the uncertainty and fear we are currently faced with. Wherever you are on the spectrum: from “I have a diagnosed Anxiety disorder” to “What is anxiety?”, this article is for you.
Below, I attempt to explain what exactly anxiety is, but also offer many practical tips on working with this tricky emotional state, so you can live a full, healthy life.
What is Anxiety?
Most of us haven’t received any formal education about our emotions. Which is ironic, for emotions drive our behaviour much more than we like to admit. Ask any advertising agency how they get people to buy clothes, food and gadgets they don’t need, and they all will tell you: If you can hook their emotions, you have a home-run!
Anxiety is one such emotion. Professor Marc Brackett, research psychologist and the Founding Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, defines it as “worry about future uncertainty and the inability to control what will happen to you.”
Labelling ‘anxiety’ helps you navigate your world
Knowing the definition for an emotion is an important step to help us navigate uncomfortable emotional states. Remember the last time the power went off in your house, and you didn’t have a flash-light? As you stumble over tables and chairs, trampling a few legos in the dark, you are vividly reminded how precious your eyesight is.
Labelling emotions is like switching on the light in your inner world. Without labels or names for them, some emotional states can feel undefined, amorphous and even threatening. Names like ‘anger’, ‘disgust’, ‘hopelessness’ and ‘fear’, give our inner world a clear shape. And once your inner world is more clearly defined, you will find it easier to navigate – without stepping on any sharp objects!
Anxiety is there to protect & prepare you
Imagine it’s late at night, you are all by yourself, walking down a dark path on your way home. This path is known for muggings and attacks, but you have no anxiety. It’s not that you have any reason to feel safe, but your brain and body has a malfunction and you simply cannot feel anxiety. Without this critical emotion, you won’t be as alert to danger. You may walk slowly, daydream about something and not pay much attention to your environment. In this blissful state, you’d have a massive target on your back.
This is just one example of how anxiety helps us: it forms part of our survival-system ensuring that we are alert and aware of our environment; pre-empting any possible danger and ready to mobilise into action.
Anxiety has physical & physiological qualities
“It’s all in your head.”
There is an awful myth that our modern Western culture is still struggling to live down, the idea that emotions live in your head. And, the compounded judgements that certain emotions are a sign of weakness. This is, with respect, scientifically speaking, rubbish. Emotions live in your body: they are a physiological responses to our internal, external and perceived reality.
When you feel anxious, your heart rate & blood pressure are increased, you may sweat, and your blood-flow to your major muscle groups will increase. Furthermore, your immune and digestive systems will be inhibited, which is why you’d forget to eat during a very stressful, anxious workday.
One of the most useful skills you can train, is your emotional sensory awareness. Whenever you feel upset, excited, angry, anxious, happy or any other emotion, see if you can map out your emotion in terms of its physical qualities. You might notice tension, breathing pattern, heart-rate, hot flushing, loss of appetite. You might even notice certain parts of your body feeling more alive / energised, and others feeling less energised. This skill will not only help you to more accurately identify emotions, but the body is also the most powerful way to shift your emotional state.
For more on what emotions are, and how to skilfully work with them, have a look at this article.
When anxiety can feel like a problem
If anxiety is an important part of our survival strategy, it’s a natural physiological response to reality, that helps us to be alert, prepared and responsive to life, why is it causing so much trouble for people?
Does your emotional warning-system need to be calibrated?
My car’s engine-light went on a few months ago. After taking it to the mechanic, they looked at the engine, and said that everything is fine. Everything, except the engine-light itself. Now, we drive with a car where we never quite know whether the engine is about to seize, because that light is constantly on.
Just like any other warning system, our fear- anger- and shame-systems can be hypersensitive. On the one hand – as in the example above – you may have too little anxiety: living a very risk-prone life. On the other, your anxiety-system may be over-active, like a fire-alarm that goes off every time you make some buttered toast to have with your tea.
And just like you can fix the engine-light, or calibrate your fire-alarm, it’s also possible to retrain your anxiety-warning-system, so that your emotional system can support, rather than overwhelm you.
Is it just the way we’re wired?
Most mothers would agree that, no matter what your parenting style is – your children simply arrive in the world with a certain blueprint. One baby bashes into the world with loud noises and inconsolable energy, and the next baby cruises along like a sloth on a warm summer’s day.
Due to a combination of ingredients: genetics, hormonal fluctuations in the womb, and mysterious reasons we can’t fully explain, every person arrives in the world with a certain temperament. Some people are more anxiety-prone, while others are more anger-prone. Some find it hard to sit still, while others find it hard to get up.
Depending on your temperament, or what we call your Enneagram-type, you will have a unique relationship with anxiety. To find out what your Enneagram-type is, click here.
Developing your emotional skills
First, a quick recap:
- Anxiety is an emotional state that helps us to survive: it is the unpleasant emotion we feel when we are concerned about the future, and we are faced with the inability to control potential threats.
- Anxiety is a physiological response: it lives in the body, activating our nervous-system, hormones, muscles and readies our entire system to react to possible danger.
- Our anxiety-system may be uncalibrated: either hypersensitive to threats, so we are overly jittery, worried and agitated, or under-activated, so we may be sluggish, slow or even reckless.
- We all have different temperaments, that predispose us to be more, or less prone to anxiety.
With that in mind, here are some basic skills to support your anxiety-system:
1. Regulate with the body
“My heart is beating out of my chest, I have sweaty palms and I can’t focus on one thing. Am I anxious, or was that the 5 espresso’s I had this morning?”
If you want to make any change in life, you always start with awareness. If I am not aware of what is there, then I cannot adequately respond to it. With emotions, that means tuning into our inner experience, by exploring the signals from the body.
Anxiety can typically show up as:
- Increased heart-rate / palpitations
- A feeling of tightness in the chest & throat
- Irritability & tension
- Struggling to concentrate
- Overthinking / worrying
- Trembling & shaking
For mild to medium anxiety, any of the following practices may be helpful:
Pause & Practice: What sensations do you feel in your body right now? You may need to close your eyes, take a breath, slow down and tune-in. Start with your feet: See if you can notice, pressure, temperature, tingling, textures, clamminess, numbness, pain or any other sensations. Move your attention up to your legs and repeat. Then go to your pelvis and repeat. Then your abdomen and repeat. Then your chest, and repeat. Then your shoulders & Arms, and repeat. And lastly, your neck, moving up to your head. Notice what sensations pop-out like a spotlight, and see if you can also discover subtle, more gentle sensations.
Lastly, ask yourself: Is there one clear emotion that is present in my body right now? What are the sensations that form the ingredients for this emotion?
2. Follow the energy
Every emotion has an energetic quality. Depression tends to be low energy, and turned inward. Anxiety tends to be high-energy and outward.
Some people find the practices above quite soothing & supportive, or other practices like meditation, yoga and breathing practices, others find it more useful to ‘follow the energy’:
- If anxiety makes you feel jittery, go for a walk.
- If your anxiety shows up as overthinking, grab a piece of paper and write down all the busy thoughts: get it out of your head.
- If your anxiety shows up as worry, give yourself to express that either by sharing your worries with someone who can listen, by doing a voice-note or writing it down.
3. Go into the fear
When it comes to anxiety, one counter-intuitive strategy is to allow yourself to follow the fear. Here’s how it works:
Anxiety is the emotion we feel when we ‘worry about possible futures’. The mental stories start with “What if…?” The problem, though, is that we usually don’t allow ourselves to complete that story. A lesson I learnt from a good friend, is “If you want to play the ‘what if’ game, you have to finish it.”
As an example: you start noticing your heart racing, and your mind starts moving into “What if you mess up your presentation tomorrow.” You realise that you are experiencing anxiety, since:
- Your heart is racing
- Your mind is starting to move into the ‘what if’ space
As you notice this, grab a pen & paper, and finish the what if game:
“What if you mess up your presentation tomorrow?” Well, then my boss might be upset and give me a warning. “and then?” This will make me on edge, which will lead to me being less productive at work: constantly worried whether I’m doing okay. “and then?” then I’ll probably mess up another project or presentation. “and then?” after messing up so much, I could get a final warning. “and then?” I might just go into burnout from the stress and sleepless nights, and either quit my job or get fired. “and then?”
You just keep allowing your mind to go into worst-case-scenario, which will usually end on “And then I’m dead”: the ultimate fear.
Ironically, running these scenarios in your mind will help you feel much calmer. Why? Partly because you’ll notice that your fears are very extreme and unlikely. Partly because you’ve mapped out the route to the ultimate worst-case, and that will set your mind at ease: the uncertainty is gone, and you can focus back on the here-and-now.
Anxiety as your Ally
Most of us haven’t been trained on how to work through difficult, uncomfortable or unpleasant emotions. We had to stumble our way through life, and developed adaptive strategies that don’t always work out. Our emotions form a core part of the human experience: not just to add colour, vitality and meaning to life, but also to help us survive.
Anxiety is simply another signal: another colour on the kaleidoscope of your experience. If you allow yourself to feel anxiety, and gradually, skilfully learn to navigate it, you will discover the true gifts this emotion can bring to your world.
If you feel you need more help with your anxiety, or you may need professional treatment, why not book a discovery call with me below? I’d love to see how I can help you live an exciting, fulfilling life!