Breaking the Cycle of Anxiety
Fear is a natural reaction built into the mind-body system. It is triggered by danger, and after the danger is past, so is the fear response. But when fear spreads out into a general condition, it becomes a mysterious thing: anxiety
Anxious people are afraid even though there is nothing “out there” to be afraid of. Others overreact to triggers that ordinarily should be fairly easy to handle, such as being left alone for a day on their own. Still others are nearly paralyzed by highly specific phobias such as fear of heights, open spaces, or insects. What is going on and what can we do about it?
Record numbers of people in modern society, predominantly women, suffer from mild to extreme anxiety. Billions of dollars are spent every year on tranquilizers to treat this condition, yet as the doctor writes out a prescription, he knows two discouraging things: no medication is a cure for anxiety and the cause of the condition is unknown. Since human beings have lived with the fear response before recorded history, there should be a way to heal anxiety, and perhaps the best way to approach the mild-to-moderate types is not as a disease but as a challenge. In anxious people, fear is allowed to roam freely; we can truly say that fear rules the mind. Yet it should be that we use our emotions, not that they use us. The challenge is to bring the fear response back under control. Otherwise, anxiety becomes ingrained and over time will spiral downward. The anxious person begins to be afraid of being afraid, because she knows that she has no power against it.
Because anxiety comes and goes, people tend to overreact when it appears, only to forget about it when it isn’t present. So an answer to anxiety must come in two parts: dealing with anxiety when it suddenly rears its head in panic attacks but also healing its underlying causes. Anxious people also tend to be worriers, so that must be taken into account as well. We have three parts, then, to address. Here the topic will be how to deal with anxiety when it appears. The acute attack is the moment when sufferers need the most immediate help.
If you suffer from anxiety, your mind has gotten into the habit of holding on to fear instead of letting the response follow its natural cycle. What we need to do is to get it back into its normal rhythm. This isn’t difficult, since your body wants to respond naturally but is being held back. Left to itself, the fear response isn’t mental; it’s physical. Therefore, let’s get the body accustomed to being in charge of fear once again.
Three steps are involved:
1. Get out of your mind and back into your body.
2. Clear the fear response.
3. Calm the body into its natural state of relaxation.
These three steps must proceed in the order just given. You can’t use simple relaxation until the fear response has run its course, and the response won’t end as long as the mind keeps fueling it with new reasons to be afraid. If you perform each step thoroughly, anxiety will subside and go away.
Step 1: Get out of the mind and back into the body.
Let’s say that you find yourself having anxious thoughts. It is best to notice this early on, before the spiral of anxiety fully takes hold. To get out of the mind, sit or lie down in a quiet place. Close your eyes, and feel your body. The sensations won’t be nice, because fear is cold, contracted, stiff, empty, and trembling. Those are the basic sensations that your body will be feeling. There may also be muscle weakness (such as when your knees turn to jelly) or an ache around the heart. A sick feeling in the pit of the stomach is common. Even though these sensations aren’t pleasant, rest assured, they want to go out. Your body always tries to discharge discomfort, but it can’t do that while you are living in your head and blocking the release that needs to happen.
Take a few minutes and let yourself settle into the feeling of being in your body before you go on to step 2. For many anxious people even a few seconds of feeling the body is too long. The mind jumps back in to take control. Before they know it, they are caught up in anxious thinking. When this happens, go back to feeling your body. Here are some tips on how to stay with your body instead of jumping back into your thoughts:
— Take deep breaths. Draw the air down into the pit of your stomach, then easily and slowly release it again.
Stiff: Fear paralyzes the body. It goes tense and motionless, frozen with anticipation of something dreadful that is about to happen.
Approach: Lying on your back, slowly stretch and twist. Be like a cat waking up from a nap. Reach up as far as you can, rotate your shoulders, wiggle your toes, stretch your feet and legs.
Breathless: Tense and vigilant, you stop breathing when you are afraid.
Approach: Use conscious deep breaths, going as low into your abdomen as you can. Draw in air slowly and deeply until you feel your diaphragm start to bulge out. When it can’t comfortably go out any farther, exhale with a whoosh. Don’t push the air out, but let it escape as if your lungs were a balloon collapsing. Whenever you feel anxious, in fact, and notice that you aren’t breathing, consciously take a breath. The breath regulates the movement of emotions.
Unable to make a sound: Fear tightens the throat, and even when you feel like screaming, you can’t. At its extreme, this leads to a condition of silent horror.
Approach: Make sounds that activate the fear to leave. This kind of “toning,” as it is often called, takes practice. Sometimes you may want to scream into a pillow; other times a low guttural sound is needed. Laughter can help or a silent tone that goes out the top of your head. These sounds help carry away stuck feelings that are harder to get at. But each kind of sound has to come spontaneously. Don’t scream and cry in order to exhaust yourself. The sound shouldn’t be forced. Begin by humming as your attention scans your body, using a high tone in the head and a lower tone going down to the abdomen. Breathe the fear out with the sound. In time, you will find that bodily sensations can be eased out using many kinds of sounds. However, if you find yourself getting sadder or more tense, the tone isn’t helping. Deep breathing would be better at such moments.
Contracted: Fear brings on a sense of seizing up or shrinking, drawing up into a tight protective ball. When that happens, many anxious people tighten up even more, as if growing smaller and smaller will make fear stop noticing them. But contraction has the opposite effect. It prevents the release of deeper residues of fear.
Approach: Put your attention on your heart. See it filled with white light. Now, while you slowly breathe out, see the light expand. Don’t force this; perhaps the light only expands by a small amount. Take another breath and repeat the process. See yourself expanding with the light, growing more expansive and open. Let the expanding light go beyond your body. See it fill the space around you. Now have it fill the room and finally go outside the room into the rest of the house and out into the surrounding world.
After you know how to do each of these techniques, you can combine them. But as you stretch and relax, always remember to keep breathing. These steps should be taken patiently, allowing at least ten minutes to deal with your bodily sensations.