Working With Anxiety at its Source
Everyone’s Anxiety is Different
One of the first things I learned in my recovery from anxiety was how to “track” my anxiety. Even though it is not really easy to think or analyze something when one is having an especially high level of anxiety, the idea is to begin to “witness” exactly what is going on when the anxiety switch gets flipped on.
Knowing what triggers anxiety for some may be extremely easy, but very difficult for others. Everyone’s anxiety is not the same, even though the resulting feelings may be very much alike. In the first anxiety class I taught, two of the women present had, on top of their normal anxieties, experienced car accidents, so their main stressor was very evident. It was about driving; especially on the highway at high speeds.
I was encouraged to keep a notebook with a sentence or two (or more if needed) about each day, citing the moments my anxiety took hold. In my classes, I provided the students with a sheet for each week with the names of the days already printed on them. I found that writing down brief notes each day (and remember if you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up; just continue) not only helped me become more familiar with what was going on in my mind and body, but it enabled me to see where I had made progress as time went on.
Where Were You ?
The first thing to notice when symptoms start increasing is the situation. Where are you? What is happening around you?
A lot of anxiety is situational, and doesn’t always make sense. At the height of my panic days, walking into the grocery store was one of the main things that set me off. I was never able to explain to myself why the grocery store caused this, but I was able to manage and eventually eliminate it.
Being in an elementary school was a big one for me as well. I had two elementary age children at the time, so being in the school was mandatory on occasion. I learned later that young children in groups actually brought about a feeling of overwhelm for me. The anxiety was even worse when my kids transferred to the same elementary school that I had attended as a child. These causes were definitely from emotional memories, and I was able to work them out along the way.
The idea is to simply take note of where you are and what is going on when anxiety hits. If it is everywhere and everything, make note of that.
What were you thinking?
Taking notice of what you were thinking about when the anxiety started is the second part of tracking; herein lie many keys to understanding your personal “anxiety voice.” Anxiety voice is what I call the thoughts we have that actually contribute to turning on the anxiety switch and keep feeding the fearful, uneasy condition.
I learned that most, if not all of my anxiety was the result of my sensitive body responding to my strong mind, and that the two are inextricably connected. Thus, the way to help my body feel better was to notice what my mind was saying that upset my body, and learn to give it different messages.
It became important to take note of the nature of the thoughts I was thinking. Mainly, they were negative, scary, and obsessive thoughts.
Negative thinking? Me? I could swallow the idea that I was thinking scary thoughts; I mean, I was taught to worry, and I thought that worrying was what made me a good mother. Obsessive thoughts? Well, that just means thinking the same thought over and over. Yes, I did that. But negative? Come on!
To be honest, once I started really looking at it, I discovered that I had several different strains of negative thoughts going on; pretty much at all times. I had a good friend at the time who would rant about how negative the people around her were, but I had never really stopped to think about what that meant. When I began to learn what negativity really is, it became obvious that my friend was just as negative as everyone around her.
What are negative thoughts?
This is the definition I like the best about negative thinking: Negative thought patterns are repetitive, unproductive thoughts. They serve no real purpose and directly cause negative emotions, and sometimes, physical symptoms.
Some negative thought forms are learned. They may be within a family, and often, within a geographical region. We tend to mimic what we see and hear unless we happen to think for ourselves and refuse to accept the reality of everyone around us.
You might think of the “half-empty/half-full” analogy that is often used. The person who sees the glass as half-full is the optimist and the one who says it is half-empty is the pessimist. Optimism comes more easily to certain personalities, and there are some personalities who lead a somewhat comfortable life being pessimistic. For the sensitive person however, these thoughts and beliefs about the hopelessness of life are a huge cause of depression and anxiety.
Core beliefs that are very skeptical like “nothing good ever really happens, and that’s the way it will always be, good luck with that (sarcasm), or everything that can go wrong will,” are constant, underlying convictions that can keep us stuck in unhappiness, and leave us wondering why we are miserable. For some of us, anxiety even develops because we are constantly expecting something to go wrong. You might even notice that you or someone around you has a “bracing” going on with their body; clenched fists, sitting on the edge of the chair, darting eyes, shoulders raised toward the ears – all postures of someone about to be hit with something.
There are actually many kind of negative thoughts. Once you begin to observe your own thoughts, you will find out exactly which brand you are having. Self-depracation was a large contributor to my anxiety, which I discovered after I began “witnessing” my anxiety voice:
I was driving down a street one day; it was a minor artery so it was a low-speed street. I was either in a hurry or in my head. Driving along, I noticed that there was a girl wanting to cross the street, basically just as I passed her. It was not a pedestrian lane; it was one of those places where it would have been optional to stop.
As I passed her, I said to myself, “I should have stopped.” AT THAT MOMENT, the anxiety switch turned on, or at least my feeling of uneasiness increased, as this was during a time when I was in low-level anxious all the time. I could feel the presence of the increased anxiety in my stomach.
I realized that I had increased my anxiety by scolding myself about something I had done and my body had responded in kind. BUT, I was also able to put my awareness on the energy in my stomach and willfully breathe it out, saying to myself some positive responses I had learned:
IT’S OKAY. EVERYBODY MAKES MISTAKES. IT’S NO BIG DEAL.
It was a BIG, BIG deal for me to be able to catch the self-denigrating source of my anxiety and expel it, rather than letting it stay around for further rumination on what I perceived I had done wrong. I learned that it could be done.
Here is a short audio recording you might try to give examples of how to cultivate positive self-talk:
You are More than this Fear
Thinking of the feeling in my body as a clump or ball of energy and understanding that it could easily be breathed out was a huge turning point in my recovery. Another set of three calming self-talk statements would be these:
I AM NOT THIS FEAR. IT IS POSSIBLE TO CALM MY BODY. I WILL BREATHE THIS OUT.
Remember to breathe from deep in your belly, slooooowly, focusing on the exhale, slooooowly blowing out through pursed lips. Listen to the sound of your exhale and let go of the tension in your body every time you breathe out. Do this repeatedly until you feel something shift. Do it again an hour later if needed. Roll your neck. Let your shoulders drop. Memorize these phrases so that it will become automatic.
I AM CALM. I AM PEACEFUL. I AM SAFE.
scary and obsessive thoughts
When anxiety mind starts taking you to a scary place and just won’t stop telling you about all the terrible things that could happen, remember that there is a way out. It is simply a matter of practicing the simple skills of breathing and positive self-talk. The more we practice, the better we get at it, and the quicker and better the body responds.
One of my best practices early into recovery was using sticky notes. I would think of three positive statements to counteract my specific worries and write them on the sticky notes, which I would post in strategic places; the bathroom mirror, the refrigerator, or the dashboard of my car. You can put them anywhere that you look frequently during the day.
Just remember that anytime during a time of panic/anxiety can be a crossroads. Think of yourself walking down a road and coming to a fork in the road. I used to say to myself, “I don’t have to do this. I can take a different road. I can choose to enjoy my life instead of letting fear rule me.” I reminded myself that the thoughts I was thinking were serving no purpose, doing no one any good, and that they could be changed.
Some people talked about visualizing a stop sign. I often used the visualization of an off-ramp for the energy to leave my body. You can use whatever ideas and images work for you. Try to play with it and develop a light-heartedness about it. This will help. Anxiety is a very serious (meaning we tend to get too serious) and self-centered condition. Try to laugh and get out of yourself a little.
Laugh, are You Kidding?
As I said, the grocery store was one of my nemeses. My home recovery course gave an example of self-talk for the grocery store. It went like this: “What am I afraid of in the store? Am I afraid the cans are going to jump of the shelf and attack me?” Visualizing this was meant to be comical, which it was to me, and it did help me laugh a little about my grocery store anxiety.
Another tool I used for the same scenario was singing. I would select a song to sing to myself before I went into the store so I could have a focus besides anticipating anxiety. I didn’t really sing it as a performance, and out loud, but more to myself, like a hum. I still remember the song. For some reason, I picked out, “Hello, Mary Lou, goodbye heart.” Maybe I liked it because it was a happy, jolly song. At any rate, it was the one that first came to mind.
So, I bet some of you might be thinking that you don’t want to be humming a tune because of how people around you might react. Of course. Well, let me tell you something: People don’t notice you nearly as much as you might think. That is another thought that is worth dwelling on. For the most part, people are absorbed in their own worlds, their own activities, and, as far as you know, their own anxieties. Yes, think about that. You may be only one of many people feeling uneasy in any given location.
Breathe, Chill, Let Go
Remember that even though it seems complex and insurmountable, anxiety mind can be redirected with practice. You can learn to talk to yourself like you would your best friend. Breath is the key.
Breathe from deep in your belly. Count slowly, one…………………..two…………….. three………………………four, and exhale through pursed lips…………one……….. two. ………………….three………….four………….five……………Drop your shoulders, let your head bobble. Send a mental message to your lower back to relax……………… Let Go of Everything. It will all work out. You are safe.
(P.S. Remember to do it long enough to see if it works)
I hope that something here has been helpful to you. I do believe that anxiety can be reined in to some degree for anyone, and completely for some. It’s like a lot of things. One need only open the door a little bit to believe and allow, and then it can work.