Anxiety management – Letting go of control
It’s a truism that the more you try to control something, the less in control you are – particularly perhaps in the case of managing anxiety. Chronic anxiety usually feels so awful you’ll do anything to get rid of it – positive thinking, hypnosis, mantras, special diets, avoiding stressful situations.. all of which only set you up in a long-term battle with your anxiety.
It’s not an easy thing to get your head around, but if you’re really going to beat anxiety you have to stop trying to do so. The key is accepting it and just letting whatever happens, happen.
The trouble is, it can be hard not to panic when you experience anxiety because it does feel so bad. It might be racing thoughts that make you imagine your head just might explode; it might be dizziness or nausea or a racing heart or stomach pain, tension or tingling in your limbs or any number of other symptoms that you probably believe are dangerous. But they’re really not dangerous; and though they are unpleasant to say the least, it’s the story we create around the feelings we’re having and our myriad attempts to avoid the anxiety and control our experience that really create all the problems – in other words, our anxiety about anxiety.
Typically your mind comes up with all kinds of scary thoughts, eg. “This is awful, what if I faint?” “What if I can’t do my job?” “What if I make a fool of myself?” “I can’t cope.” “There must be something wrong with me.. what if I’m really sick?” “Maybe I’m going to die!” etc, etc. Your awareness is then focused on your distressing thoughts and how they then make you feel, ie extra anxious – rather than on the initial experience of anxiety itself. So, next time you feel anxious, try bringing yourself down from your head, into your body and practising some mindful awareness of the sensations in your body; be curious about them, explore them, gently breathe into them. Just be with the feelings of anxiety until they subside, which they always do.
Just don’t try to avoid the thoughts or feelings; you’ll only increase your anxiety. Think of anxiety as being like a bully in a playground. If you ignore the bully’s taunts and just let him at it, he soon gets bored; but if you try to appeal to him to stop, or show him that you’re upset or scared, he just becomes even more interested in you. Anxiety is the same. The attitude to aim for is ‘whatever happens, I can handle it’. Because you can.
You need to give your mind permission to think whatever it wants to; because when you can do that your mind eventually gets bored and stops sending you so many anxious or negative thoughts. Practising mindfulness also helps you gain distance from your thoughts so you can observe them instead of being embedded in them.
In panic attacks, for example, never try to stop one. Just tell yourself that your body’s stress system has been inadvertently activated – a response that evolved to help you survive, not kill you. And if you just let it happen, let it wash over you, the average attack will last five minutes.
It’s tough work accepting your anxiety and I do recommend working with a therapist who, along with being able to help you develop your acceptance skills, will also help you identify your control strategies, which are insidious and often hard to spot. But if therapy isn’t an option financially, there are some good self-help options out there – including the excellent The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris, which is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.
More on how to accept anxiety in future posts.