The thing about anxiety is it affects people in different ways – that is people react differently depending on their personality, beliefs and a whole host of other factors.
Some people are strong enough to fight their way out of an anxiety disorder alone, or maybe with the help of medication. Even if they spend a bit of time in “the loop” they may soon overcome it without falling deeper.
Some people may become terribly afraid of all the sensations and thoughts. They may retreat into a small safe zone such as their home.
This third word isn’t talked about as often as fight or flight but psychologists now believe we also sometimes freeze – much like an animal caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. I like to this of this mode where you are “managing” anxiety but you are still living within the confines of a self-imposed prison.
This is the place of being stuck between completely free and completely agoraphobic. Some of us can spend what seems a lifetime in this mode and it gets little attention despite being truly deserved.
From my own experience, I believe this place is forged from the bricks of fear and control. We hide away believing we are living free as long as we don’t “poke the bear” so to speak, afraid of feeling anxious so days are spent avoiding it.
If you think of an adult dog that has not been training and has a few bad habits. It’s very easy to say “you can’t train an old dog”. But is that true? or we are just using that as an excuse to avoid the long, hard work of training the dog.
As with anxiety, the longer we allow it to misbehave and react by minimising its behaviours, the more we reinforce that the behaviours are acceptable whether we mean to or not – generally not.
But does this mean there is no way out? I don’t think so and there are countless examples of people proving that to be true. But what skills do we need to cultivate on this long journey?
In order to change something, I believe we first need to be aware of what is happening. This is where mindfulness and becoming an observer is an essential skill. If we are on automatic pilot there is no time to interject behaviour change because our reaction is so instant we have no time to respond differently – or realise that we are reacting and modify after the fact.
Once we are able to observe and notice these “choice points” we are able to react differently. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and DARE recommends defusion being the absolute first step in changing how we respond to an emotional thought or sensation.
Acceptance comes in many forms and we need to cultivate this skill in many ways. In the moment – we need to cultivate acceptance and allowance towards whatever we are feeling at the time.. anxiety, fear, despair, sadness. Whatever it may be they are all completely normal human emotions.. and they feel horrible for most of us. But we have a choice – accept or resist. It is this very resistance that creates more pain.
There are lots spoken about self-esteem but other researchers say time is much better spent on self-compassion. And I would agree with this myself because many things like love, acceptance and (self) forgiveness come from a place of self-compassion.
And it also has a tendency to improve self-esteem levels indirectly as well. After all, having compassion and acceptance for oneself – is that not the very definition of a well-balanced self-esteem?
The thing about all these skills we work on cultivating above – they all take a long time. Just as it takes a long time to “undo” the bad behaviours of the untrained dog, it takes a long time to undo the bad behaviours we have spent over the months or years training our brain to behave like. We have effectively wired the brain to react a certain way and now we need to rewrite it.
Hope / Belief
The final skill I believe we need to work on is hope and belief. There are many therapies in the world, with great success rates but nothing has a 100% success rate. The key factor, in my opinion, is how much hope or belief someone has that it is all possible.
We may need different ways of being convinced – some may be inspired by words of a therapist, or a book author, or success stories of others.
Whatever you need to have hope and belief hold it dearly because it is what will get you through the tough days.
First, you need to believe it’s possible, but then you need to believe you can do it. Remember your brain is like my brain is like their brain. Neuroplasticity says we all have the same capability to rewrite our brain. You are not unique just as I am not unique just as they are not unique.
Regardless of the cause of anxiety, the answer is the same. You are the magic pill. Your response to the sensations and thoughts regardless of the cause is the cure.
Putting It All Together
Now I will present an example of how to put all these steps together to respond to anxiety. Remember to practice them regularly every day even when not anxious. This will help the process become automatic.
- “Thanks, Mind”
- Take a deep breath. Mentally and physically acknowledge and accept the emotion with your attitude and posture.
- Self Compassion – Mindfulness
- “This is anxiety”
- Self Compassion – Common humanity
- “We all struggle in our lives”
- Self Compassion – Self Kindness
- “May I learn to accept myself as I am”
- “May I be strong”
- “May I be patient”
All of this may seem like a lot but it need not take more than a few seconds. Remember we have already spent years feeding ourselves negative, anxious stories often giving them far more attention than they deserve. It takes time to replace the old stories with new.
The thing about these steps is you need to experience anxiety to practice responding to it in this new way. This means you need to break out from the confines of your comfort zone.
Now we all have different levels of comfort zones. Some people are restricted to their house while others are town-bound and others maybe state bound. Others might be situation based such as social anxiety.
Whatever your fear is you need to expose yourself to it frequently. It is only then that you can break free from the shackles. This means if you are comfortable going to the letterbox but no further, you need to go further. It doesn’t matter if its three feet further or three blocks further.
When I was tackling distance based anxiety I would drive at least until my mind said “Okay, that’s far enough” then I would continue to drive further. Whatever your mind tells you is far enough, try and go further. Then once you use your response skills and are back at your safe zone acknowledge how far you went. Store it away as evidence in your mind. Allow new neural pathways to slowly rewrite a new story.
Finally, I want to talk about roadblocks. The first roadblock is expectations. You need to expect that it will be hard – and that’s okay. Use self-compassion to acknowledge this is hard – and that’s okay. It’s hard for you, it’s hard for me, it’s hard for everyone else too. You are not weak or alone. Your suffering is as common as painful as my suffering.
Expect weird and new sensations and use your new found skills to respond – not react to them. They will always surprise you but there is no need to fear them – instead, expect them. “Thanks, Mind – That’s new”.
Blurry vision, dizziness, unreality, a vague sense of weirdness, sensitivity to light or loud noises and people – I know your sensations because they are my sensations.
Something is wrong with you, you’re losing your mind, you’re not good enough, you’re weak, this isn’t normal, I hate this feeling, you’ll panic, it’s too hard – I know your thoughts because they are my thoughts.
Expect that sometimes you will be sad, and it will all feel hopeless – but remember it’s usually just an emotional reaction to a thought – or a thought reacting to an emotional feeling. Use the steps to approach it the same way and then practice self-care not with the intention of getting rid of the emotions – but with the intention of self-kindness.
There are no absolutes – there is no life without anxiety. It is not a matter of being “anxious” vs being “cured”. If you have a bad day, it’s just a bad day.
Remember the weather – we may have days or weeks of beautiful sunny days but then out of nowhere, we might experience a cloudy, gloomy rainy day. But does that mean the beautiful days are gone forever? It just means things are always changing but there will always be another beautiful day. We don’t need to wish for it, we don’t need to angst over it. We just need to know that when it’s ready it will come in its own time.