Anxious times

With the election just days away and daily news reports of economic woes, many (if not most) of us are feeling concerned and perhaps even anxious about the state of the world.  We wait on pins and needles for the stock market to find its bottom and our country to choose the candidate we feel is best equipped to lead us out of this mess.  This waiting is difficult, to be sure. And it’s normal to feel fearful and anxious under circumstances such as these. But anxiety can take on a life of its own, throwing us into a state of high alert and making it difficult to get through our days.

The problem with anxiety isn’t anxiety itself, but our reaction to it.  We are naturally predisposed to react to anxiety by trying to make it go away; it doesn’t feel good, and we don’t like it. But in trying to make it stop, we only make it worse. We become anxious about being anxious, and the spiral begins.

Our minds have this amazing ability to plan, predict, and respond to threats.  We know how to take control and make things better, and it’s skills like these that make civilization possible!  But when it comes to anxiety, these skills can lead us to spin out of control.

How does this happen?  Our bodies are wired to run  from threats, from the tiger that wants to catch us and make us its dinner.  When we feel threatened, adrenaline is released, and this causes several things to happen: our heart rate increases, digestion shuts down, our thinking processes become more reactive and jittery (and less reasoned and introspective). Blood is diverted into our limbs so we can run and physically fight off whatever it is that’s attacking us. Fueled by adrenaline, the mind kicks into high gear, assessing the source of the threat, and predicting what’s going to happen if we don’t deal with it.  For example, Jane feels anxious about the economy. Her mind conjures up scenarios of losing her home, her job, her health.  She pictures poverty, sickness, and ruin.  These thoughts and images just increase her anxiety, and the cycle repeats, with the images becoming even more dire and more threatening.  Pretty soon she’s on the verge of a panic attack. Her instincts are telling her to run, but how can she run away from her own thoughts?  She wants to get rid of the thing that’s threatening her, but how can she do that when the threat is a scary future she’s created in her imagination? And, most importantly, how can she make reasoned choices about her finances or job or who to vote for when her mind is operating in fight-or-flight mode?

We may not be able to single-handedly get the election or the economy under control.  But we can respond more skillfully to whatever amount of fear or anxiety we’re experiencing, and in the process feel better as we wait for things to settle. And feeling better can help us find effective ways to respond to the what’s happening in the world.

There are a couple of strategies that can be helpful.  First of all, pay attention to experiences that are increasing your anxiety.  if the news is getting you all fired up, turn it off. With 24-hour news reports available on hundreds of cable channels and thousands of websites, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Providing an already anxious mind with more data just adds fuel to the fire.  Take a break; the world will wait for you!

The second strategy that can be helpful is to use some simple mindfulness techniques to break the spiral of thoughts that increase our anxiety. Doing so helps us tolerate the experience of anxiety, which allows it to pass and helps us get back to a state in which we can make rational choices rather than operate under the sway of fear and a false sense of urgency.  It’s like being in the ocean when a big wave comes.  If you’ve been to the beach, you probably know that the way to deal with a big, scary wave is to dive under it and let it break over you.  By using mindfulness and dropping your attention into the body, you allow the wave of anxiety to break and move along. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with mindfulness, I’ve listed some basic instructions at the end of this post.)

Mindfulness practice won’t make the anxiety go away, but it can help prevent the anxiety from getting any worse than it already is, and in the process, help it dissipate. Mindfulness helps us tolerate the experience of anxiety so that we don’t exacerbate it by trying to push it away.

Please note: If your anxiety feels like more than you can handle or if you’re becoming unable to function in your daily life, then it’s time to seek help from a therapist, counselor, or medical professional. Mindfulness practice and self-care can help, but sometimes they aren’t enough.  If you need help, get it.

Basic Mindfulness Instructions

Start by placing your attention in the body. The breath is often used because it’s always there and it can be calming to focus on the breath.  Breathe naturally and notice what it feels like to breathe by paying attention to the sensations in the nostrils, chest, or belly.  If it isn’t calming and comfortable to focus on the breath, you can choose another object to focus on, such as the hands or feet, feeling them as if from the inside. You can close your eyes, if that feels comfortable.  But if closing your eyes increases your anxiety, keep them open and focus your attention on the floor or another object. If you’re feeling especially anxious, it can be soothing and calming to look out a window or up at the sky.

As you focus on your breath or other sensation, your mind will wander off.  That’s fine, that’s just what minds do.  When you notice that it’s wandered, just label it “thinking”  (say to yourself, “thinking”) and return to the breath or whatever object you’re focusing on. Continue to do this for a few minutes or even longer, anytime you notice your fear or other uncomfortable emotions arising. Remember, this isn’t about making your anxiety or discomfort go away, and it isn’t about emptying your mind of thoughts. It’s about finding some solid ground on which to stand as you wait for the anxiety to pass.

You can also schedule a “breath break”, taking 5 minutes out of your day to practice some mindfulness, or tie your mindfulness practice to an activity such as waiting for a meeting, at the beginning of your lunch break, or everytime you walk down the hall.

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