If we accept the possibility that every life experience, even loss, offers an opportunity for growth—and the skills offered here can help you regardless of whether you accept this assumption—then this present moment of our lives offers, and perhaps demands–abundant opportunity for growth. Let’s use it to turn inward, learn who and what we really are, and with that knowledge, accept the possibility and promise that we can work with our emotions, even in the worst of times, to experience depth and joy in the opportunity this “pause” provides.
Let’s begin at the beginning. What is anxiety? The answer to that question provides clues for answering the question!
We can turn anxiety into The Incredible Hulk, but like it or not, this is what it is: physiological arousal that we sense in our body that comes and goes in waves. The sensations have a beginning, a middle (peak), and an end. They never last forever, and they are not going to kill us.
For most people, we feel fear and anxiety in our chest, our stomach, or head. Some people experience the feelings more globally in their entire body. The feeling of anxiety is typically triggered by thoughts and internal speculation about an anticipated future. When we feel the resulting arousal in our body, we begin to add labels or judgments to those sensations, and we begin to become anxious about the anxiety; we begin to fear the sensation of fear and anxiety…which triggers more anxious sensation, which triggers more fearful thoughts, which triggers more intense feelings in the body…and so on. This is the spiral of anxiety, a trap into which we can easily fall.
I always challenge my clients to understand exactly what anxiety really is: a feeling in the body that comes and goes in waves, has a beginning, a middle, and an end, is not going to last forever, and that is not going to kill you.
You can try to fight it, resist it, overcome it, ward it off, or “relax” your way out of it, but in doing so, you set yourself in opposition to it, and anxiety loves that—it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire. The more you can remain a neutral, objective observer watching the wave pass through, the faster it will pass, and the less you will fall into anxiety’s grip.
Anxiety is a feeling you feel in your body, it comes and goes in waves, it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, it never lasts forever, and it’s not going to kill you. You can stop fighting a battle you can never win, and don’t have to fight. The Incredible Hulk returns to Dr. Bruce Banner.
Don’t misunderstand—you can find ways to keep anxiety alive indefinitely, and some people do. Fight it, run from it, become anxious about anxiety, listen to the voice of anxiety whispering in your ear rather than the voice of your inner wisdom, and you have the power to empower anxiety. But as usual, the truth will set you free, if you are brave enough to accept the truth.
In addition to objectively watching the wave pass, there are some additional things I’ve found helpful in managing anxiety. Most of these techniques are simply different ways of being fully present in THIS moment–not focused on the past, and not anticipating a future that may or may not happen. With few exceptions, the present moment is almost ALWAYS better than distorted memories of the past, or projected vision of a future that is not here. I often intentionally frustrate the patients I work with by asking: “show me the past” (you can’t, the past only exists in memory) and “show me the future” (you can’t, the future is only internal speculation, often driven by fear, about a present moment that has not yet arrived).
So here are some things you can do, in addition to The Wave, that actually help. I do them all, and they really help me.
- GRATITUDE: List all the things you have to be grateful for in this present moment. Include basic things, you don’t have to be lofty. In the most difficult moments of my life, when I feared losing everything, my list looked something like this:
- I have shelter, a roof over my head.
- I have food to eat.
- I am alive, and I can feel my life energy.
- I am able to love people, and receive their love in return.
- I can see beauty around me in nature, art, and human kindness.
- I can smell wonderful smells, I can touch wonderful fabric, I can taste each bite of the food I eat.
- I can recognize that through infinite coincidences and chance events, I came into being on this planet, fully human. I can appreciate the mystery, I can feel awe about what IS in this eternal present moment.
- BE MINDFUL: Try to focus on WHAT IS in the moment you are experiencing. Rather than living in your head, experience what is actually real, both in you and around you. Appreciate the process of life, the details—for example, showering, feel the warmth of the water, notice the cleansing effect on both your body and mind. Be process focused, not simply worried about the outcomes of your behaviors. Say, “I am ok in this present moment”.
- MOVE: Be physical. Walk, run, do yoga, do tai chi, lift weights. Being physical takes you out of your head (where your fears live) and into your body.
- FAITH: If you have religious faith, pray. Use your faith as a source of comfort.
- REACH OUT: As much as restrictions allow, engage, seek support from others, and share your struggles. When we are struggling with anxiety, we tend to forget that others are likely experiencing the same, and we isolate ourselves. There is great power in discovering you are not alone in your struggle.
- TOUCH: Engage a pet or loved one in your home. We know that touch of an animal or person calms the central nervous system. Dogs, cats, partners, and children are often our best therapists. Anxiety often results in isolation; we forget how to receive the basic comfort and reassurance that is in front of us. Follow health guidelines in doing so!
- LIMIT: While it is true that the situation is changing quickly and as good citizens, we need to be updated on developments, consider limiting your media exposure. Perhaps you could limit exposure to Governor Cuomo’s updates, for example. When we went through 9/11 together, we had the trauma…and then the endless re-traumatization of watching the towers fall on television, over and over. Let’s avoid that trap!
- HELP SOMEONE: Service to others is often the best thing we can do when we are stuck in our own emotions or symptoms. Find ways to be useful to someone in need!
- SEEK PROFESSIONAL SERVICES: During this emergency, most providers are offering telehealth, so if you have a device with a camera and microphone (smart phone, tablet, computer), you can get help without leaving your home. Many insurance companies are now waiving co-pays. Please take advantage of those services. All of our providers, and providers throughout the community, are dedicated to service in this time of intense change.
Be fully present. This will pass. We will get through this together…
Dr. Jay Hamer, Clinical Director, Pinnacle Behavioral Health