This post is part 3 of a series on anxiety. To read part 2, click here.
“Be. Here. Now.” –Ram Dass
Ram Dass’ manifesto to be here now makes perfect sense intuitively, but when stress hits, it can be difficult to apply the concept in real time, under real pressure, when anxiety starts rising and your body’s alarm systems are blaring.
As I discussed in a previous post, the brain is constantly updating and adapting its circuitry. This means increasing our capacity for greater calm and clarity is always possible, even when we have a long-standing pattern of reacting to pressure with anxiety.
If you’re ready for improvements that can be achieved with mindfulness practices, there are steps you can take right now. Changes may be small at first, but eventually these incremental improvements will add up to a big shift in overcoming anxiety and even panic attacks.
Identify Your Anxiety Theme
Often, there is a theme or pattern to a person’s anxiety. Let’s see if you can identify yours.
Statistically, the most common theme is social anxiety or the fear of being rejected by others. With this theme, you might worry that you’ll say or do the wrong thing. Or that you’ll look foolish… or be excluded… or that you won’t be smart or witty enough… or that you’ll offend someone and be rejected. Maybe you even fear having to reject others.
The truth is, sometimes meeting people really will go badly. But when an uncomfortable encounter feels like a matter of life and death, you may want to ask yourself if you have magnified a threat. In the area where you feel anxiety, it is likely that you have a habit of exaggerating the threat.
When you realize you’re exaggerating the risk, what do you do? In this case, acknowledging that meeting people is typically awkward for you may be enough to keep you in the moment. Allow yourself to be okay with that awkwardness with the awareness that it’s “normal” for you to feel this way, at least initially.
Another common anxiety theme involves safety: yours, others, or even the planet. This could take the form of high anxiety about fire, floods, or other natural disasters, or chemicals in your food, or even a general feeling that the world is an unsafe place.
Of course, a certain amount of precaution is healthy, and there are reasonable actions you can take in response. For example, checking food labels or buying pesticide-free produce are fairly simple actions you can take without overthinking it. If you live in a hurricane zone or in the middle of a fire-prone area, these threats are very real, so it makes sense that you should prepare for them.
But you also want to be mindful of whether your level of concern is reasonable. The first step to loosening the grip of your anxiety pattern may be to recognize that your brain has lost sight of the dividing line between reasonable fears, the kind that actually do protect you, and magnified threats that keep you on an endless loop of distress and ruin your quality of life.
Any time you find yourself in an anxiety loop, try challenging the validity of your repetitive worries. Notice which worries you keep coming back to, and start keeping track of how often they actually materialize. When the answer is “rarely,” or even “never,” this should tell you that you’re in the habit of magnifying threats associated with that anxiety theme.
Once you recognize that you’re on a hamster wheel of fear, you can remind yourself to step back and question whether your perspective is balanced.
Notice the Effect of Uncertainty
Your anxiety is a reaction to fear that you won’t be able to control what happens to you in the uncertain future. Studies have shown that our brains hate uncertainty. So we make up outcomes, even worst case scenarios, about what will happen, and then believe in what we project just so we can feel a false sense of certainty about the future.
If you think back to all the hoarding at the beginning of the pandemic, this would be one example. The collective response to the fears and uncertainties around the pandemic was to believe stockpiling was the solution. There was no reason to stockpile supplies, especially toilet paper, but doing so made many people feel like they were proactively dealing with uncertainty. Instead, this just caused needless scarcity and stress for those who hadn’t reacted and were now facing artificially created shortages.
Because anxiety is usually triggered by the uncertain future, be mindful of the fact that your level of anxiety can increase with the level of uncertainty the situation presents. For example, if you lose your job and don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent, fear of uncertainly can suddenly be overwhelming.
If the uncertainty extends for a lengthy period, the risk of chronic anxiety is much greater. Many of us are experiencing anxiety over what the future still holds for politics and the pandemic in the year ahead.
Are you reflecting on what might be a wise precaution? Or are you ruminating about whatever you’re afraid you can’t control?
Are you reasonably concerned? Or are you desperate to eliminate every potential risk?
Are you simply aware of the uncertainties? Or are you dwelling on them?
When you notice yourself ruminating, desperate to resolve the uncertainties that are stressing you out, Stop. Press “pause” on the thoughts you’re projecting out into the future. Focus on relaxing your posture and breathing freely. The truth is, you can’t breathe in any other moment but the one you’re in now. So it’s the perfect exercise to instantly halt your brain’s frantic activity to make things up and speculate. While keeping your mind primarily focused on breathing and relaxing your posture, see how long you can stay in the present moment.
Activity/Reflection: There is usually at least one place in our lives where uncertainty doesn’t matter—where we can just show up and be completely in the now, moment to moment, not concerned about the uncertain future. Maybe you feel confident on the job but not in your relationships, for example. Or you can cook just about anything without a recipe, but go deer in the headlights when you go shopping for clothes. You might be a wizard at numbers, but feel like you have a hairball in your throat when called upon to speak in a group.
Consider what this “show-up” place is for you. Where do you feel calm and confident enough to just show up without worrying about it? Take a few moments to reflect on why you can embrace uncertainty in this area but not in the area of your anxiety theme.
I’d love it if you share your discoveries from this exercise in the comments box below.
Take good care : )