By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
If you struggle with anxiety, perhaps you will relate to the following scenario:
Imagine you are on a path. I will call it the path of anxiety. One of the most common experiences on this path is anxious physical sensations, a chemical cocktail of cortisol and adrenaline that can bring on a knotted stomach, a racing heart, trembling, fatigue, headache, brain fog, or nausea.
In addition to anxious sensations, many people experience worrisome thoughts on the path of anxiety. I call them the “What ifs.” What if this happens? What if that happens again? What if it doesn’t happen?
Usually, anxious thoughts lead to anxious sensations, but sometimes people have anxious sensations, and they’re not aware of any prior worries. Of course, there may have been unconscious thoughts. It’s also important to rule out any medical conditions or medications that could be causing fight or flight sensations. Still, some people with a clean bill of health find themselves feeling regular rushes of anxious sensations with no anxious thoughts. Then, what often occurs is that they have anxious thoughts about the anxious sensations. Why is this happening? What if this never ends? What if I feel this way at work?
So, we can have anxious thoughts that trigger anxious sensations, or we can have anxious thoughts about anxious sensations.
Next on the path of anxiety, many people experience self-blame. What’s wrong with me? I can’t believe I’m still so anxious with how much therapy I’ve done. I’m going to ruin my health or my relationships if I don’t get it together.
Not only is self-blame unhelpful, it’s also unfortunate, because if you struggle with anxiety, it’s not your fault. Anxious sensations and thoughts are automatic, unconscious reactions that occur for a variety of reasons, none of which are your fault. Nobody decides to worry or wake up with a pit in their stomach. We need compassion when we’re anxious, not blame.
Finally, on the path of anxiety, many people disapprove of the anxiety itself. I hate this feeling. I can’t stand feeling this way. I’m so sick of being anxious. Believe me, I get it. Anxiety can feel extremely unpleasant. It makes perfect sense that we would disapprove of it and want it gone. But disapproving of a feeling is simply not helpful. Disapproval leads most people to feel more stressed and constricted, not less.
Let’s say you are on the path of anxiety, and you come to a fork in the road. I will call this the fork of awareness. At this fork, you see that there is an alternate path, the path of anxiety relief tools.
Every change is preceded by awareness. So, every time you arrive at the fork of awareness and you realize you’ve been on the path of anxiety, you have the opportunity to choose an anxiety relief tool. You can choose a tool that will help you calm your nervous system. You can choose a tool that will guide you to question, quiet, or upgrade worried thoughts. Or you can shift your focus to something present, pleasant, or peaceful. Eventually, the path of anxiety relief becomes your most well-worn path, leading you to experience more moments of calm and presence.
Let’s shift now to the path of anxiety relief tools. I like to teach a wide variety of tools to increase the chances that students and clients will find at least a few that resonate.
First, one of my favorites, Compassionate Connection.
Become aware of the anxious sensations like a curious observer. Try letting go of the idea that the sensations should be gone. Notice what happens when you become aware of anxious sensations without having any judgment or stories about them.
The part of you that is observing anxiety is not the anxiety. This can give you a bit of separation from the sensations, like you are the open sky, and the sensations are clouds. They can simply exist, and in time, pass right on by.
Practice offering the sensations compassion, like you might offer an anxious child. You can place your hand over the body part where you feel anxious sensations, and imagine sending them warmth and comfort with your own touch.
Tell yourself, or remind yourself, that this will pass, that all sensations, thoughts, feelings, and situations eventually pass.
As you breathe, imagine that your breath is like a relaxing tropical breeze, soothing any sensations or tension it passes by.
You can have a compassionate dialogue with anxiety, either in writing, in your imagination, or even aloud if you have privacy. Allow the anxiety to express itself and then respond back in a compassionate manner. If you have difficulty fostering compassion, you can think about how someone else compassionate and wise might respond.
The main themes here are compassion, warmth, and kindness, however that might look or feel to you in any given moment.
It’s like the anxious sensations are your child, and your compassionate responses and respectful actions are the parents.
Additional Anxiety Relief Tools:
Mindfulness: Practice bringing yourself back to actual, factual reality. You can do this anytime by focusing on your senses: notice any shapes or colors you see, sounds you hear, what you’re touching or sensing, or your body breathing.
Meditation: This could be a mindfulness meditation, repeating a mantra (a soothing or healing word, phrase, or sound), a calming visualization, loving-kindness meditation, or yoga nidra, to name a few.
Breathing Practices: Bringing your focused attention to your breathing, as well as deepening your breath can have calming effects on the nervous system. Deep breathing allows more air flow into our bodies and can help reduce anxiety.
Channel Changing: When it feels appropriate, you can shift your focus off of anxiety and onto something that is uplifting, soothing, inspiring, or engaging.
The Work: A powerful thought-questioning process.
Internal Family Systems (IFS): A therapeutic model that guides people to identify and compassionately connect with various internal “parts”.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT): Tapping specific points on your body to reduce anxiety.
Self-Havening: Using your own touch to signal the brain to boost serotonin and calm your system.
Voo Chanting: A powerful chant that helps stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system for relaxation.
Trauma Release Exercises (TRE): A simple series of shaking exercises that helps the body release stress.
May the path of anxiety relief tools be your most well-traveled path and may you have many moments of peace and presence.