When is the last time you recall feeling distressed or anxious? When did you become aware of your anxiety? Most of us struggle with some worries as we navigate daily challenges and anticipate obstacles. However, when we find ourselves worrying about worrying as well as the potential negative impact of worrying, it can start to become disruptive to our lives.
Particularly with anxiety, it is helpful to understand the fight-or-flight response, also known as the acute stress response, as we consider how our reactions to distress can lead to further distress. You may have heard descriptions of this response before as well as the important role it played in helping early humans remain alert to dangerous predators.
When we experience acute stress or perceived danger, the sympathetic nervous system sends a message to the adrenal glands, which results in the release of stress hormones. This release causes immediate physical reactions, such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, in preparation to fight or flee from a threat. Meanwhile, our brain endlessly searches for an explanation or solution. If our brain perceives or misperceives smoke, it sounds the fire alarm and elevates our response. Throughout this process, it is not uncommon to interpret our physical sensations and anxious or distorted thoughts as further evidence of danger, causing our brain to continue receiving a false alarm signal. A cycle can develop wherein our reactions to our reactions become self-perpetuating as we continue to perceive danger and register false alarms.
Stop worrying about it! Just kidding. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that trying to suppress a painful emotion or distressing thought actually causes it to last longer and perpetuates distress. The more we fight or attempt to control, the more we feed our anxiety. Although we cannot stop a natural emotional response by sheer will, there is a lot we can do to modify our reactions.
Engaging the parasympathetic nervous system is often an effective way of calming ourselves and slowing down the acute stress response by telling our brain that the smoke is not a fire.
Calming your nervous system
Deep breathing – Breathing techniques can be one of the most practical and easily accessible ways of reducing stress in the moment as they can be used at almost any point throughout the day. Practice taking a slow deep breath from your abdomen and silently count up to five. Next, hold your breath for a moment and again count silently count up to five. Finally, exhale slowly as you silently count up to five one more time.
Five senses grounding – Use your five senses to ground yourself in the present. Notice five things you can see, four things you can feel, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can touch.
Mental grounding – Describe your environment to yourself in detail. Describe the objects, colors, shapes, temperatures, smells, etc. Count to ten using the alphabet rather than numbers or count down from 100 by sevens. Create a top ten gratitude list or imagine embracing a loved one.
Physical grounding – Focus on the feeling of your feet on the floor and your body in your chair. Take a moment and lay down on the floor to connect with a sense of grounding and stability. Carry around a grounding object such as a small rock or other item of personal significance. Get up and stretch while focusing on your muscles and releasing any tension. Clench and release your fists or various other muscles groups. Focus on your breath and repeat a soothing word or phrase with each exhale.
Cultivating a mindful & accepting stance
Cultivating a mindful and accepting stance towards anxiety or emotional distress is often the most difficult part of changing your relationship to anxiety. However, it can also be quite profound. It begins by stepping back or letting go of attempts to control or fight, which is not to be confused with giving up or feeling helpless. Rather, the goal is to practice a different way of reacting that involves curiosity and compassion, while working to reduce judgement and self-criticism. When viewed through a lens of radical acceptance, this relationship can be seen as an invitation. The following poem illustrates this shift in the way we can relate to our anxiety, low moods, or other emotions.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be cleaning you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
Meet them at the door laughing,
And invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
How might you come to treat your emotions, including anxiety, as guests? When you notice anxiety or worry, take note of your reactions. Practice monitoring your reactions to your reactions. Are you judgmental or self-critical? Do you try to control your reactions? Do you shut down or avoid the situation that prompted your anxiety?
Ask yourself, “Is there anything I can reasonably do now to change the situation, or should I focus on adjusting my reaction and coping more effectively?” How can I relate differently? Can I react from a place of acceptance? Can I react without judgement or criticism?
Notice and continue practicing kindness and compassion toward yourself and your experiences. Emotions, including anxiety, are part of being human and not a sign of weakness.
Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.
Visit us at lindquistpsych.com
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