Updated: Nov 11, 2019
With autoimmune disease and other chronic conditions. Like life.
“You can’t keep a bird from flying over your head, but you can keep it from building a nest in your hair”
Anxiety can come without any warning that we are aware of.
Panic attacks are frightening.
But what we do with the thought of panic when it comes across has everything to do with what comes next.
When we have a feeling of anxiety, it is the body’s response to a thought like:
“I’m in danger”
“I’m going to die”
“Something is very wrong here”
Which are very anxiety-producing thoughts.
These thoughts happen all the time and if we are not aware of them, it may feel like they come upon us like a storm in the Tetons. (Ask me sometime how I know about that).
And we may lose sight of what caused them.
Have you ever seen the lights of a police car behind you and immediately your stomach dropped and legs went dead?
Have you ever heard a criticism and immediately felt your heart pounding, face flush, and blood pressure rise?
We begin to believe that it is the police car or the criticism that caused this reaction, but it isn’t.
It is not the circumstance that causes our feelings, anxiety included, it is our thoughts about that circumstance.
We know this partly because of Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov created classical conditioning through his studies with dogs and salivation (sick.), discovering that as his dogs believed food was coming when they heard a bell, they would react physiologically whether the food came or not.
If our brain is signaling danger, anxiety leads to the pounding heart, the tight stomach, the fast breathing whether or not danger actually arrives.
And in that state, we are very apt to create danger by not breathing, by not thinking clearly, by panicking.
We have the ability to create the scenario we are hoping to avoid.
I was once on a bike ride with a friend who started choking. She was so scared that she couldn’t breathe and very nearly passed out. She didn’t because she had the thought to slow her breathing down. And then her throat relaxed. Her thoughts saved her.
Sometimes we can’t avoid the water going down the wrong way, the chemicals that are released due to a biological condition, but we can control how we think about them.
1. Do a body scan
When you begin to sense that anxiety is showing itself, get very aware. Naturally we try to escape these sensations (and this is where we can slip into some unhealthy coping such as binge eating, micromanaging others, excessive drinking, spending, and a whole slew of other things) but paying attention to what is going on inside the body gives the brain something to do. Brains love solving a problem. If the alarms are going off, it is going to get to work on figuring out what is horribly wrong. Creating stories, anticipating the worse-case scenarios, blaming, all kinds of things, and sometimes making something wrong so it can quit wondering. Give it something else to do. Explore how anxiety feels inside the body.
Where do you feel it?
What would it look like if it had a color, texture?
What temperature would it be?
Once you get aware, you can begin figuring out what thoughts are triggering this reaction.
2. Write down exactly what you are worried about
What thought brought on this storm? What trigger? What thought about the trigger? What was going on right before it happened?
Often times, as I work with clients and myself, the things that my mind are really worried about are pretty out there.
You mean to tell me that I’m freaking out because I gained weight?
When I see that in writing I am more likely to roll my eyes than run around like I'm on fire.
3. Choose the thoughts you want to keep
I realize that this may be a new way of thinking for you. When we think of anxiety we think of something that we have no control over and is completely out of our hands. That's WHY we feel anxious, right? Out of control?
If you feel this way, it is an excellent signpost that you are believing that it is your circumstances that are creating your feelings. And now that you know, you can begin deliberately choosing how you think and feel.
I know that sounds easier said than done, but stick with me, girl. It just takes practice.
Choose a thought that helps you get where you want to be. Imagine that all of these thoughts you wrote down are like lipsticks in a bag. One isn't right or wrong, you just want to pick the one that gets the look you are going for, right?
You could pull the red one out and realize that it may be too much for the PJs at Walmart look you’re going for. You could sit there with it in your hand, worrying about how it will look, or what it will mean about you, or you could look for another color that suits the occasion.
We get to choose our thoughts. Choose ones that help you get where you want to be.
4. Recognize that anxiety doesn’t have to mean anything is wrong
What pushes you closer to the cliff of anxiety and panic than thinking that something is horribly wrong? Just because you feel anxious does not need to mean that something is very wrong. This very important alarm that used to keep us safe from lions stalking us as prey, is very rarely required these days. Now it’s just that smoke alarm that goes off every time you light birthday candles, cook pancakes, and sleep in on Saturday. You don’t have to jump up and run to the fire rendezvous hollering and shouting for the medics. You can calmly get up, check to see if there is actually anything that needs your attention, and push the button that dismisses the alarm. Thinking about the worse-case scenarios when you feel that familiar knot rising in your throat will probably only make it worse. Try some of these thoughts instead.
“Hello, anxiety. Thanks for the warning, but I’ve got it. Nothing of concern here.”
“This is just a feeling from a vibration in my mind: a thought.”
“This doesn’t need to mean anything has gone wrong.”
Troubleshooting: If you find yourself explaining your anxiety during this article, that’s totally normal. And it’s actually kind of awesome. You are now witnessing your brain working hard to validate its programming and keep you from doing some new work. If it can keep you occupied trying to manage the trigger, the spouse, the child, the money, the neighbor then you're off the hook. And disempowered.
Sorry, love. I know that's really straight-forward. I totally adore you though, you know...