Making Space for Anxiety
In last week’s post, I introduced you to the concept of embracing anxiety as a way of feeling less controlled by it, rather than banishing it. Acceptance with commitment AND action. This week, as promised, I will provide you with some tips and strategies on how to get started doing this!
**Be mindful that however helpful you find this blog or this post in particular, it is not a substitute for professional counseling, therapy or treatment. As always, if you are having a difficult time or struggling with mental health issues, please seek help from a licensed and experienced professional.
Separate Thoughts, Feelings, & Behaviors
Our thoughts are so closely linked with our behaviors and we give them a lot of say in how we choose to behave. Notice I said “we give”, not “they have”. A great first step is to recognize that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all separate. Yes, they are absolutely linked and often work together but thoughts and feelings do not have to dictate behavior. You can have thoughts and feelings that you do not act on.
One excellent strategy is to create some distance between your thoughts and your behaviors. This can be done with a simple mindfulness practice.
When you start to notice the physiological signs of anxiety or are in a situation you know is a trigger for your anxiety, start to pay closer attention to your thoughts. What is going through your head? Write a few thoughts down if you can.
Then add some distance.
Say to yourself “I am having an anxious thought about ____.”
Do that with some of the most prominent thoughts you’re having. Write it down, even!
Now say to yourself “I notice that I am having an anxious thought about____.”
When most people add the phrase “I notice I’m having the thought that...” they start to feel a sense of separation or distance from it. The thought doesn’t go away but it loses its impact.
Get Comfortable with Discomfort
Remember when I said the thought doesn’t go away? This can be very painful but also keep in mind what I mentioned in my last post about being pain-free is no guarantee of happiness and vitality in life. Life is about having a full and rich range of emotions. That includes emotions on both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum.
An instinct for those dealing with anxiety is avoidance of the triggers for the anxious thoughts or feelings. The more a trigger or situation is avoided, however, the greater chance that the anxiety or fear can turn into a life-shattering issue.
Keep in mind that although these anxious thoughts are uncomfortable and maybe even downright painful, but are not permanent.
Can you think of ways in which you might be avoiding psychological or emotional discomfort?
Anxiety often leads people to be very difficult and harsh on themselves. Perhaps you’ve even noticed that you blame yourself for having anxiety—maybe thoughts like “I’m weak”, “I’m not good enough”, “Why can’t I handle stuff like everyone else” aren’t foreign to you.
Self-compassion can be very difficult to practice and is often mistaken for “being soft” or “unrealistic”. Keep in mind that no one asks for anxiety. No amount of self-blame, shame, or internal struggle will make the anxiety go away, so isn’t it time to stop beating yourself up? Rather than beating yourself up for being anxious or not controlling your anxious thoughts better, try spending your time showing yourself a little more compassion. If a close, beloved friend or relative opened up to you about similar struggles, what might you say to them to help them feel better? What might you suggest they do to be more kind to themselves? Then try turning that compassionate guidance toward yourself and your own life.
Showing yourself some compassion in this way will help you change how you relate to your thoughts. This will help you start to see them in a kinder, gentler light thus making the relationship a more compassionate one.
I mentioned this in the last post and it is important enough to repeat here. Attempts at managing anxiety are ineffective. Think about your rate of success in this area in the past. What have you done in the past when you were feeling anxious to try and manage it, decrease it, or make it disappear?
Were you successful?
How did you feel afterward?
Perhaps you responded that did some deep breathing or meditation. Now, I’m all for deep breathing and meditation, believe me! They can be so helpful during stressful times and even more so when done continuously. Maybe you responded that the breathing or meditation were successful and you felt much better (more relaxed, less anxious) afterwards. That’s great!
Now, how long did that feeling last?
When you were presented with a similar trigger later on, did you feel anxious again?
The answer is likely a yes. You see, anxiety management while effective in the moment, is not usually effective long-term. You will have to do it again, maybe longer or more intensely to get the desired result and you may start to feel frustrated with the level of energy this takes. Trying to control or manage your anxiety can end up taking so much of your time and resources that it interferes with what you value or love doing in life!
Remember that you do not have to be pain or anxiety-free to have a full, rich, rewarding life. We are sold this idea every single day in Western culture and it isn’t true. It is possible to experience anxiety AND have a rich, full, rewarding life. You can make space for anxiety and vitality in your life. They are not mutually exclusive. And anxiety does not have to dictate your behaviors or sit in the driver’s seat. You can be behind the wheel, telling the car what to do and where to go while your anxiety sits in the passenger seat, present with all your other thoughts and feelings, along for the ride but not in control.