Anxiety is awful. I think we can all agree on that. That panicked feeling in your chest, the inability to breathe, to slow down, to stop your mind from racing to stop your body from shaking. Sometimes it’s about something you are aware of, sometimes it comes from nowhere and hits you unexpectedly and shakes you to your core.
We are told that anxiety is often irrational, and not really about what is going on at the moment. But when you can’t breathe, can’t think clearly, feel like you might fall over who cares if it’s not rational because as far as we know, it’s happening, it’s here, it’s real.
Different things seem to trigger anxiety. Sometimes it covers up a feeling that we don’t want to feel. For some of us it seems more normal or okay to feel anxious or panicked rather than what’s underlying it, whether it’s anger, sadness or depression. Maybe the anxiety covers up that feeling because we are scared that the underlying feeling is really wrong or bad or that there is something profoundly wrong or bad about who we are. We are scared that if we go into that feeling then we could collapse like a house of cards. So instead of delving deeper we live an anxious, panicked life, doing everything we can to keep busy and fill our time.
Sometimes panic relates to social anxiety, feeling insecure around people, being scared of what others think about the way you look, speak or who you are. In these instances, all of our attention and focus goes outward. All we can think about is what other people might be thinking about us, whether they judge us, whether we are doing the right or wrong thing by them. All of our insecurities about who we think we are will surface and we’ll feel judged, ridiculed, alone and unloveable.
And maybe if you’re a sensitive soul – which I actually believe everyone is – you will feel the anxiety of others really viscerally. In crowded spaces, public transport, even the supermarket on a Sunday night, it’s really hard to separate your feelings from someone else’s. If the people closest to you are anxious, you will also feel their anxiety strongly. And although it might be a little bit foggier, it generally feels exactly like your own, making it even harder to understand or let go of.
There are probably a million other triggers, most of them fairly personal so maybe it’s more about accepting that at times we will feel anxious or panicked, that it’s ok, and then finding out what you can do to help manage it. Or maybe it’s not about doing anything at all. That is the hardest thing when you feel anxious, to slow down and stop doing. The anxiety and the panic seems to spur us to do more, to take on more tasks, to think about more ways to keep ourselves busy, to rush from one thing to the next, to act in whatever way we can. So in those moments see if you can find a way to stop and say to yourself “I am panicking”, “I feel anxious” and then breathe.
Deep belly-rising inhales, slow exhales. It doesn’t get much more complicated than that. But the power of it is huge. Every inhale and exhale presents an opportunity to relax your body, soften your muscles, restore your organs and calm your nervous system. Every deep breath can clear the clutter out of your head, slow down your thoughts and relax your brain. Every breath in welcomes fresh energy into your being, every breath out, an opportunity to let something go.
Deep breaths also help us come back to ourselves, which when we are feeling anxious is what we really need to do. Even in situations which are scary, we need to be able to find and reconnect with ourselves in order to know what to do, how to act. We need to come back to our bodies, letting go of the flurry of thoughts and feel the ground underneath our feet. We need to let go of the worry about what other people might think and just be with ourselves, where we’re at. Trust that by feeling, acknowledging and sitting with the panic it will pass.
Then you are left with yourself. And be kind to yourself. Detach yourself from the feeling. Rather than seeing yourself as an anxious person, see yourself as experiencing anxiety. Have compassion for the feeling and avoid judging yourself for it. There is nothing wrong or bad with you and from time to time, we all experience anxiety. It doesn’t make us weak or frail or pathetic, it’s just a feeling. You should see Indi our Labrador trying to navigate a revolving door. There is nothing but sheer panic in her eyes. But we still love her and as far as we can tell she still loves herself, has compassion for her panic and avoids those doors as much as she can.