Before embarking on the ‘courageous’ path, there are a few tid bits of information you may find useful! So let us visit the experience of anxiety. Anxiety (in super simple terms) is the result of an archaic and ancient ‘button’ being pushed in the back of our brains. This button is pushed when a potential threat is perceived. If the threat is real, then this button is helpful, and potentially life- saving. However, these perceptions of danger can often be inaccurate or false, and we still react as if the danger IS real. Let me give you an example.
I recently returned from a holiday in Cairns, Far North Queensland (FNQ). FNQ for me, was another name for the Australian state home to man eating jelly fish, bugs the size of cats, and crocodiles that will drag you out of your dingy. The panic button in my brain (the amygdala) already had a finger hovering over it before I stepped off the plane! Of course, you will not be surprised to hear, that with my heart in my throat and chest pounding, I saw a crocodile at every body of water that I visited! Of which, none of these sightings were actual real crocodiles. What I had seen where floating logs, debris, and swirls of water. I had been so primed by my fears, that my brain was hyper alert for possible danger, and seeing potential threats in every drop of water. I didn’t see one crocodile.
The brain serves to protect us from all sorts of danger, not just immediate physical threats. Your amygdala may have its eyes open for financial burden, rejection by a loved one, terminal cancer or any other threatening possibilities. You may find yourself preoccupied with worrying thoughts, and experiencing unpleasant sensations of impending doom. By its very design, anxiety creates a very strong urge to escape or avoid the situation that cultivates anxiety. In the initial design this was intentional, and kept us safe from Sabre Tooth Tigers, however now it can become a life stifling burden. So what do we do with this anxiety?
Stepping on to the Courageous Path
Become familiar with what your body feels like as the button gets squeezed. Tune in. At any given moment, you can check on the quality of your thoughts by checking into the state of your body. Your body is your very own personal monitoring system. This means by being in contact with your body on a regular basis, you notice the shifts that move you towards tension and anxiety. Anxiety breeds muscle tension, shallow breathing, nausea or queeziness, headaches, shakes and sweatiness. The earlier you notice the signs, the easier it is to calm yourself down and return to your centre. Try this guided practice from leading Psychologist John Kabat Zinn to develop greater awareness of your body https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jmG3UFZGNU.
What do I do once I notice tension building?
Breeeeeeathe. This is not some hippy new age thing. Taking deep, belly and chest filling breaths activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which means it trips the switch of anxiety. This is potentially your most powerful tool. Click the link for a simple explanation and guide for how to breathe to calm http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/ACFA28D.pdf . Counting your breathes, attaching a mantra, or simply stating ‘inhale’ ‘exhale’ can be very helpful too. As you focus your mind on your breathing, you can’t be thinking the thoughts that created the anxiety in the first place!
Now that I feel a little calmer what else can I do?
Try to notice what it was you were thinking about, and HOW you were thinking when tension began to build in your body. Usually these thoughts are reacting to a situation, a worry about the future, or a thought about the past. The mind is a real monkey, if it isn’t put to use it will take you on a joy ride. The past as you know is over, and the future has yet to happen – so keeping yourself in the present moment is pivotal. We also tend to see the world thru the lens of our experience, which means we don’t usually react to the objective truth, but our version of the truth. Check out this list of unhelpful thinking styles to see HOW you might think your way into hot water : http://www.cci.health.wa.gov.au/docs/ACFE1D0.pdf. Once you are aware that perhaps the WAY you thinking isn’t helping you, try to balance it out.
Well, as human beings there can be a tendency to default to paying attention to the lack in our lives, to what’s going wrong, to what we aren’t getting etc. Imagine how you would feel if all you focussed on was what you could be afraid of, what you’re missing out on, what you don’t have, how things could be better etc. Pretty miserable. Imagine if you took the same situation, the same life, the same person, and focussed on all that worked well, all that you had, all the moments of goodness. Your immediate experience would be far more pleasant, and nothing had to change except where you chose to place your attention. A practice of gratitude cultivates appreciation for what is, attracts more of what you appreciate, and creates a person people just love being around! At any moment of challenge or despair, ask yourself ‘what 3 things can I be grateful for right now?’. Or you could finish the day by sharing with your loved ones want went well, rather than your stories of defeat and difficulty. Perhaps you might jot down each morning three things you have to be grateful for. This isn’t dismissing of challenges, rather a celebration of what is wonderful. Try this, imagine if you woke up tomorrow with ONLY the things you were grateful for yesterday?
Article written by Natalia Fidyka. Natalia is a Perth based psychologist and founder of Cultivating Wellbeing. Follow Natalia on FB https://www.facebook.com/CultivatingWellbeing or visit www.cultivatingwellbeing.com to keep up with workshops and newsletters. If you would like more support in managing anxiety or any other personal concerns, please feel welcome to contact Natalia. This article is not intended to be an alternative to psychological treatment.