The world around us is opening up a bit, and we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this pandemic. Returning to “normal” life may stir up some extra anxiety.
Here are some tips for recognizing and working with anxiety.
Anxiety goes hand-in-hand with worry, which is really just overstimulation of our problem-solving capabilities.
When we start to think of a problem, we tend to rack our brains with all the ways to mediate the situation. We believe we are doing something helpful, and at first, we might be, but when we get carried away, we’re no longer solving a problem. Instead, we are creating anxiety.
Let’s break down what’s goes on in the body during this time.
The worrisome thoughts create neurotransmitters (hormones like adrenaline and cortisol) in the brain that are released into the bloodstream. These neurotransmitters find and connect to receptors (mostly in your heart and gut) that connection creates the physical sensations we associate with each emotion, including anxiety.
Our heart starts to pound, our chest feels constricted, our breathing increases, and we get even more worried because these sensations signal to us that we need to be afraid. These physical sensations continue to fuel our worrisome thoughts which, in turn, create more neurotransmitters, and the cycle begins.
When this happens, we go right into our sympathetic nervous system, which initiates fight or flight mode. (Hello, panic attack!) This mode shuts down our prefrontal cortex, which is the brain’s logical- and reasonable-thinking part.
The only thing left is a fight, flight, or freeze response.
When we are in our sympathetic nervous system, we can’t make any reasonable decisions, so it does not help to try and think our way through an anxiety attack. We need to get out of the cycle, calm the nervous system, and then return to our prefrontal cortex for rational thinking.
Here is how we do that.
First, we recognize we are in, what I like to call, a “shit cycle,” where shitty thoughts create shitty emotions, which again fuel shitty thoughts, and so on. So, we need to stop engaging with these shitty thoughts.
If thoughts are like trains and we get on board the worry/what-if train, where is that train going to take us? To destination anxiety, depression, and feelings of hopelessness. That’s not where we want to be!
We get off the train by guiding our awareness out of our heads and into our bodies.
We must consciously process the emotions of anxiety and worry. So, we bring our awareness to the physical sensations of the emotions in our bodies.
Ask yourself, “How do I know I’m experiencing anxiety? What does anxiety feel like? Where in my body do I feel it? How do the sensations move and change?” Stay present with the sensations as an objective observer (no commentary or judgment). Just notice the sensations — the racing heart, constricted chest, tingling limbs — this allows your body to process the emotion (allowing the reaction of the neurotransmittor to play out without creating more neurotransmitters). Taking deep, slow breaths will help you stay focused on your body and the present moment.
Our bodies are extremely intelligent and know how to process emotions, typically within 90 seconds.
Afterward, our bodies will naturally relax with a deep breath, and we will feel like we can move on.
We must not get discouraged if the process takes longer at first. Recognizing that our thoughts are not facts, that we have the ability to choose which thoughts we engage with, and allowing ourselves to process the emotional reaction takes practice. The key is to consistently practice because, as difficult as it might sometimes be, feeling through emotion is much easier than staying caught in a shit cycle.
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