close connections: reducing and channeling anxiety
Mark Twain said, “Write what you know.” I know anxiety.
Panic attacks, before there was such a diagnosis, sent me to the hospital in my early life. Anxiety led me to a therapist who helped me unravel the sources of this debilitating reaction. It also pointed the way to my career as a therapist, which has shaped me as a human being.
Am I thankful for anxiety then? Yes and no. Right now, I’m battling it (as probably are others) as we all face the pandemic, social divisiveness and the election.
Fortunately, it no longer feels like dying. But it still creeps in and out of my life.
Anxiety is not about an imminent threat, it’s about a possible threat. Although there’s no escaping it completely, I’ve learned some helpful techniques on turning the volume down.
First, make sure it’s anxiety, not fear. The difference being, is the danger right in front of you, or it could be? Is someone pointing a gun at you in your yard, or are you anticipating they might? Both can shake you to your core.
Fear is about the now. Anxiety is about the future. When our adrenalin starts pumping, the heart starts pounding, look for the danger. Is what you’re scared of about to happen or, in actuality, is it not just around the corner?
Secondly, are you feeling anxiety or excitement? They trigger the same nervous system responses, but how we label the experience makes all the difference. A friend says she’s full of anxiety as she moves to a new house. What she can’t see is the excitement also inside her about owning her first home.
Next, think, think, think. Unfortunately, anxiety makes us stop thinking and prevents us from looking for the threat while we battle the bodily torment that’s enveloping us. Instead take a breath, stop and use your brain to assess the present moment. What and where is the threat? Is it partly excitement? Ask questions!
Additionally, don’t run or try to hide from your anxiety. The hardest part is facing it. Once we understand there’s not a clear and present danger, we want to forget about it and make that physical torture go away. But putting off unraveling the sources of the anxiety won’t prevent it from ambushing us again and again.
Despite the discomfort of feelings of anxiety, it isn’t all bad. The goal is to reduce it, not make it disappear completely. Studies show that anxiety can actually help us plan for unforeseen events and be more self-disciplined. However, we have to channel it in that direction rather than let it run wild.
Finally, find allies. Before reaching for the merlot or the Marlboro or that package of Fritos, develop an “anxiety emergency kit.” This can include: a stop sign, slower breaths, putting hand on heart, a go-to scene that generates quiet calm, and—most of all—words that say, “I am safe.” Friends, therapists, teachers and eventually your own trustworthy self are waiting to become allies. Invite them in.
Nancy is a licensed clinical social worker. Send your questions to her in care of Life After 50, or email her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.