This morning, I encountered a few things that left me feeling anxious. An insurance company denied a request for a client after I had been on the phone with them for hours; my knee injury was acting up; I probably drank too much coffee. I felt wound up, but also like so many annoying things kept getting in between me and all the things I needed to accomplish. I got tight in my chest and my breathing got shallower.
When I’m caught in this anxiety mindset, it’s common for me to start thinking about the long term ‘what ifs’ regarding any situation I’m catastrophizing. Today I thought: ‘what if I can’t hike in the mountains anymore and enjoy Colorado’s beauty?’ And I even had a brief, ‘Should I move because my knee injury won’t allow me to enjoy what I love about Colorado?’
Obviously, it would be insane for me to leave a place that I love for many reasons because of a treatable knee injury. But anxious feelings can send our minds into a spiral.
We all know the spiral (especially if we have experienced trauma, have felt unheard or didn’t get our needs met for a long time, or if we have a genetic predisposition towards anxiety). But all humans—regardless of history—experience anxiety. And most of us experience it very regularly.
So what do we do with it?
- Remember That You Don’t Know How Things Will Turn Out, and that the Anxious Mind Discounts Positives
After getting lost in the spiral for a few minutes, I had the fortunate thought that all of the things that cause me anxiety never turn out to be what I’m imaging. Most things I fear never even occur.
I remember that I first got this lesson in college when I told an old, wise college professor how much my brother’s death scared me. This professor suggested to me that perhaps the fear of my brother dying made things appear worse than they actually will be when my brother dies.
My professor’s words shocked me. Of course death is the saddest thing I can imagine—and the death of the person that I love most in the world? Nothing could be worse or more worthy of my mental fixations.
But then I realized that many things I’ve feared don’t turn out in the way my anxious mind has predicted.
For example, as a child I had a huge fear of the dentist. I thought I would be criticized repeatedly while sitting in extreme pain if I ever got into the dental chair. When I finally went to the dentist after a long hiatus, I found that the dentist was very nurturing. She told me that my teeth were very healthy, and she fixed a chip that I’d been trying to hide for years. Facing this fear was satisfying in a way I never could have imagined.
Every other fear facing experience I’ve had has been similar. Sometimes things I’m afraid of do bring me discomfort and sadness when they occur. But they also always bring unexpected opportunities, realizations, bits of meaning, friendships, growth or joy.
Our minds aren’t big enough to see all possibilities. Once we open to this reality, we see that life and connection are always around us—even in the places that look darkest.
- Recognize That the Anxiety is Normal
Anxious thoughts are common partly because of our evolutionarily developed negativity biases. Our brains naturally focus on threats, and we seek solutions and explanations whenever we feel threatened.
Which is quite often. In fact, our brains interpret anything unknown and feeling like we ‘should’ be doing something as signals of threats. How many times a day do we feel like we should be doing something else? How often do we find ourselves in new situations? For most of us, both of these things occur multiple times a day.
When we feel threatened, our brains go into fight/flight mode and we either shut down or get revved up. If we practice mindfulness and compassion, we can come back to the present moment and begin to relax into whatever experience we’re having. We can remember that if we’re anxious, we’re alive and our problem solving brain is working as it should. Thank it, and then move on.
- Do Something Active
If it helps you, go burn some energy and release some endorphins. A run or a walk (when I’m not too injured), helps ground me in the natural world and in my body. Yoga can help me sit with discomfort and see that it passes.
- Use the Energy to Create
In our culture, many people don’t set aside time to be creative. It can seem easier to go get a drink or sit in front of the tv when we just want to calm down as quickly as possible.
When I’m anxious, it helps me to make something because I feel like my energy has a purpose once I’m doing something with it. It’s also helpful to look back and think about the time when anxiety wasn’t the end of the world—in fact, it gave me the energy to write a blog post or a make a picture book.
Do some writing or drawing, play music, practice a monologue. Redecorate your apartment. Hang up pictures. Write a card. Cook an amazing meal. Breathe some of your energy into an activity and get lost in something that engages your mind.
- Reach Out to Someone and Then ‘Walk Them Home’
One of my favorite lines from Ram Dass is, “We are all just walking each other home.” Often, once we recognize how normal our anxious feelings are, we recognize that others around us are also suffering. We want to help.
Nothing is more powerful for me than showing someone else compassion and love when I am in pain. My best therapy sessions have occurred when I am emotionally open, and when I can feel what the person sitting across from me is feeling.
When we give to others, we also connect with them and realize that we’re all in this together. Reaching out can be as simple as smiling at someone or sending a kind text. It can be listening to someone else’s story or giving someone our time or resources. Giving brings us back to the larger truth of who we are. We are connected beings with huge capacities for love.
- Practice Self-Compassion: Walk Yourself Home
Lastly, and most importantly, have compassion with yourself. Ask how gentle you can be with yourself, and then be that gentle.
This may mean that you let yourself go buy a cup of tea. Or it might mean that you take some time to breathe, laugh or take a break. Or it might mean that you simply practice kind thoughts in your head.
Remember that being human is a process. Wherever you are is exactly where you need to be. You are already home.
Emma Kobil is a licensed professional counselor practicing in Denver, Colorado. Her philosophically informed therapeutic approach is designed to foster a sense of strength, understanding, and joy. Her expertise focuses on helping individuals practice self compassion. Learn more about Emma, or schedule an appointment, at mindfulcounselingdenver.com.