Anxiety, emotional upset and pain are unavoidable; it’s how we deal with them makes all the difference. Being in a hyper-alert state of stress is not comfortable and humans don’t like to be uncomfortable. Some of us will run to that shot of brandy, surf the Internet, or distract ourselves in some way so we don’t have to feel. Many of us will eat.
What this does is bury the emotion deeper, leaving it to rear its ugly head at some point in the future when the same scenario happens again. It may be gone, but it’s not forgotten. While some of us suppress these feelings, others obsess and are, thereby, not able to focus on anything else. Sometimes, we cannot let it go and give it way too much attention. Suppress or obsess; either way of coping may be extreme.
What We Resist Persists
As I mention above, when we suppress our feelings, they don’t completely disappear. Eventually, this will manifest in other situations when we are faced with similar circumstances. For example, if I step on your toe and you are upset because it hurts, that’s logical; however, if three days later, you are still complaining about how I stepped on your toe, it’s likely that you had a sore spot or underlying infection there before I stepped on it. Get it? That trigger point had nothing to do with me but I touched on something that had been festering or sensitive to begin with—buried emotions.
I first learned the technique I’m about to share with you at a weekend retreat. The leader asked us to try and make ourselves feel anxious. We sat in meditation conjuring up as much anxiety as possible. When we weren’t trying to push it away and allowed ourselves to actually feel the anxiety, it dissipated rather quickly. It was truly an amazing experience. If we sit with our emotions and allow ourselves to drop into our bodies without avoiding it or attaching thoughts, it will pass. Emotions are just energy in motion (e = motion). Simply noticing them creates a shift.
Taming by Naming
Another way that we can diffuse some of our emotions is by simply naming them. Author Dan Siegel calls this “taming by naming.” When you name the feelings you are feeling, it can help them dissolve quicker. For example, when you are feeling upset that your husband is working late again, simply note to yourself that you are disappointed.
Just by naming the feeling, coming from the observer point of view, you can shift it. It gets you out of the “story” of the emotion. This can also help your children. When my son would get cranky when he was younger, I’d tell him, “You seem cranky now” or “You seem angry that you can’t watch TV now.”
This helped him to become aware of his feelings, instead of telling him that he shouldn’t feel a certain way. (On a similar note, this is one reason why young boys grow up to be men who aren’t adequately able to feel their feelings.) Feelings aren’t right, wrong, good or bad; they just are. Now when my son acts out, he sometimes says to me calmly, “I’m sorry, Mom, I’m just cranky now.” He is in touch with how he is feeling and can name it.
The Breathing Space
Tuning into the “triangle of awareness” can help us become present in stressful situations and give us some breathing space between stimulus and response. You can practice this as part of a meditation practice or take one minute to do this in the heat of the moment.
The three prongs of the triangle are:
First, ease the panic by focusing on your breath. This may be difficult at first, so counting inhales and exhales may help. Then notice the thoughts you are having and become curious about them. Is this really true or is there another way I can think about this? Are you stating facts or an opinion? Can you notice them but not get caught up in them?
Next, check in with your feelings. Processing an emotion through the body can help you feel and release it. What do I mean by “processing?” Simply allow the feeling to be there, even though that is the opposite of what your instinct might be. Honor what you are feeling even if you think the cause of your worry may be trivial in the scheme of things. Remember that you cannot help how we feel; you can only help how you think about the situation. So, focus on what you feel in your body, not your thoughts.
Shift out of your head and focus on where the feeling is located based on sensations in your body. Is it in your heart, chest or stomach? Try and describe it. Truly allow it to expand in your body and give it room. It will pass in 90 seconds if you’re not “thinking” about the stressor. Finally, begin again.
So the next time you feel anxiety coming on, get out of your head and into your body. You’ll be amazed by how much better you feel after this simple strategy. The goal here is to get out of the thinking loop, begin to feel into the body, make room for it, and allow it to eventually dissolve.
The 4 B’s can help remind you to:
- Breathe: Take some deep breaths.
- Brain: Check in with your brain for thoughts and feelings.
- Body: Feel it through sensations in your body.
- Begin: Begin again; repeat until you feel a gentle shift
Here is an example of one of my clients that I like to say was in a
Casey was 17 years old when she came to me for help with her anxiety. She would, at times, become overwhelmed with schoolwork, friends and all the pressures that teenagers face. When Casey began to get anxious, her thoughts would spin out of control and she’d imagine every worst-case scenario. We decided to name this phenomenon “the spin cycle.”
Every time her thoughts would start spinning out of control, Casey acknowledged that the spin cycle was starting up, like a setting on a washing machine. She thanked it for coming and warning her but understood that they were just thoughts and didn’t need to be acted upon.
Casey began to notice that her spin cycle would come in moments of stress and to not push it away but allow the thoughts to be there without making it worse. Casey realized that these were not rational thoughts, but a cycle of panic that happened every time she experienced stress. It was just her body warning her of a danger that did not exist.
Casey practiced breathing instead of panicking and dropped into her body. This got her out of her head as she focused on where in her body she was feeling it. Previously, her heart would race, her chest would tighten and her palms would sweat. When she focused on the symptoms instead of thoughts, they started to go away. Feeling them shifted everything. In addition, by naming this phenomenon, we created awareness that allowed her to separate from those thoughts that created anxiety.
After a short time, Casey learned these techniques and was able to manage her anxiety without further treatment. She graduated at the top of her class and is off to college with a little nervousness and excitement. I have no doubt that she now has the tools for success.
Experiment with these strategies and see what works for you. Anxiety isn’t pleasant but with some simple tools and techniques it certainly can become manageable.