Have you ever experienced anxiety, and have friends and family tried to help you out by telling you to “calm down” or to “stop thinking about it”? Have they tried to reason with you, pointing out that your fears seem exaggerated or unrealistic? Has either of that helped? I’m sure it hasn’t. There is no arguing with the anxious part in us and no just trying to ignore it. Anxiety persists and gets even stronger when we do that.
We live in a time where depression and anxiety are both on the rise. Mood and anxiety disorders are among the most common types of mental disorders in Canada and have a major impact on the daily lives of those suffering from it and on their loved ones, who often are support people. According to Statistics Canada, three million Canadians (11.6%) aged 18 years or older suffered with a mood and/or anxiety disorder in 2013. It is important that we learn to understand what can be done to address anxiety.
A person with an anxiety disorder comes to treat their anxious feelings not just as a symptom of nervousness, but behaves as if there is a threat. The mark of a chronic anxiety disorder is that a person feels afraid and defensive when they are not presently in danger. A part of us takes over that wants to protect us. We are left with our instinctive three responses to enemies: fight, flight or freeze. All these are very useful when there is real danger. These instinctive reactions allow us to act without conscious thought and to either fight, run away, or play dead when confronted with a dangerous enemy. These responses, however, are extremely unhelpful when we are caught up in “What if…” thoughts or worries about a future that hasn’t yet happened, and is most likely not even going to happen the way we fear.
What we have to keep in mind is that anxiety is not about being in a dangerous situation. Therefore, the first two questions to ask according to anxiety expert David A. Carbonell are:
- Does the problem I am afraid of exist right now in the present moment?
- If so, what can I do to address the situation? If not, I am dealing with severe discomfort, but not acute danger.
When a bus is driving towards us, we are busy jumping out of the way instead of distracting ourselves. Or if a dog is attacking us, we are busy fighting the dog off rather than distracting ourselves. So, when you feel the urge to distract yourself from the fear, that is a powerful reminder that you are not in present danger.
For some people, the fear of fainting during a panic attack is an issue. If that is one of your worries, let’s examine what happens in the body for us to faint. What causes a person to faint is a sudden and significant drop in blood pressure. Because the brain is at the top of our body it has difficulty getting an adequate supply of blood. Fainting brings the brain down to the floor to guarantee the blood supply. However, during an anxiety episode or panic attack, the blood pressure is doing the opposite, it is going up, not down. Carbonell mentions in his book “Outsmart Your Anxious Brain” that in thirty years of seeing anxiety clients, exactly five clients have fainted and that was due to a rare condition called POTS, which less than 1% off the population has. If you had that condition, you would know because you would have a history of fainting frequently.
Once having determined that there is no acute and present danger, rather than trying to argue with the fear, or trying to distract ourselves from it, or going into fight, flight or freeze, what is most useful is to relax, be with the fear and give it time to pass.
In my article “Hello, Old Pal Anxiety!” I mentioned greeting the anxiety like an old friend, “Hello, my friend. I know you. You are my old pal fear. Welcome back.” While we are simply watching the physical sensations, we use deep belly breathing.
Taking a deep breath can be tricky when we are tensed, so start with a deep sigh or two, exhaling with an open mouth before you take your first deep belly breath. You can place one hand on your belly (to feel it filling up with air) and the other one on your upper chest (for comfort). As you inhale through your nose, let your belly come out and fill up with air. Take a short pause, and then exhale through your mouth and let your belly become smaller again. Continue this way of breathing while you remind yourself that every anxiety episode has an end.
In his book “Outsmart Your Anxious Brain”, David A. Carbonell outlines five simple steps to address anxiety.
Resistance to the part in us which is coming up with warnings is futile. The fearful part will only make itself heard more loudly. In the end, we feel worse when we resist or argue with the anxious part. The opposite of resistance is acceptance. Simply decide to accept that it is there. Welcome it. It is there for a reason. There is some deep wisdom behind this part showing up, even though it seems like it is trying to make life harder for you.
Watch the sensations and observe your symptoms without judgement. Carbonell suggests keeping a symptom journal, because it keeps our mind in the present moment. Watch how this part makes you feel physically and listen to what is has to say with open curiosity.
This does not mean trying to stop the anxiety. That is not your job when you are experiencing fear! The anxiety will last as long as it lasts, no matter what we do to stop it. Acting means to see if you can feel a little more comfortable while you wait for it to end. One main way of acting is the deep belly breathing I described above.
You could also communicate with the part in you that is trying to protect you with “What If…” thoughts. Do not argue with it. What we resist persists. Instead remember that there is a part in you that has the best intentions. This part is separate from you. It is trying to protect you. Humour it. Listen to it. Let it know you understand what it is trying to do for you. Let it know that it makes sense to you that it would feel it has to give you anxiety symptoms to warn you. Let it know how very grateful you are for what it is trying to do for you.
Carbonell suggests using the “Yes, and…” rule of improvisational theatre. Agree with what this part has to say and add to it in a humorous way. He gives the example of a man who is anxious about his next job evaluation: “Chris might respond to his frequent thought, ‘What if the boss gives me a poor evaluation?’ By replying, ‘Yes, and he’ll probably hit on my wife too and steal her from me once I’ve been fired!’”
The “R” in the AWARE method stands for “repeat”. You simply continue to repeat the accepting, watching and breathing or talking to the “What-If” part. Practice is key for addressing anxiety.
Have you ever had an anxiety episode that did not end? They all end, no matter what you do or don’t do. Remind yourself of the fact that it ends as you accept, watch and breathe.
The AWARE method outlines clear steps to respond to anxiety rearing its head. Carbonell also suggests making daily ten-minute appointments to worry out loud in front of a mirror, just letting one what-if thought after the next flow. People find that by giving the anxious part room in that way, that the rest of the time they feel less anxious.
To practice the AWARE method and to learn other techniques to embrace yourself with your anxiety, reach out for a free phone consultation.