Coping with Anxiety
Hello, Anxiety. Is this seat taken?
I look towards the end of the bench. She is nervous, frightened and exhausted. I can hear her heart beating faster and her thoughts seem to be racing; I can see them float above her in a frantic dance, one after another. She looks scared and overwhelmed. I ask, “May I have a seat?” She looks at me with a deflated expression and says, “Don’t you usually run from me?” Gently, I move over, put my arm around her and reply, “Not today. I am going to sit with you because I know eventually it will be time to go on our way.”
During therapy sessions, I often discuss how to be present with anxiety. One client, when we were wrapping up our final session, said to me, “I used to think you were crazy; telling me to face and be present with my anxiety in the moment.” Her face softened, and she said, “I wanted to run but now I know I can be in the moment when I become anxious and it won’t kill me.”
Being present allows us to focus and regulate our emotions. We can stop and identify areas in the body where the anxiety is being felt. Anxiety is tricky like many “uncomfortable” emotions. Anxiety is sometimes unsettling because there are various physical symptoms associated with anxiety or panic attacks. For example, the heart beats faster, palms become sweaty and the brain may seem to feel “cloudy.” Anxiety can cause people to “dry heave,” become dizzy, feel nauseous and panicked. Some of my clients have reported that they felt like they were having a heart attack.
How do we “take a seat at the bench?” We begin by taking small steps:
1. Acknowledge your anxiety and say to yourself in the moment, “Hey, I am anxious. I can allow myself to feel this and these symptoms don’t last forever.” One things is certain, eventually an anxiety or panic attack goes away.
2. Take a deep breath. Tell yourself, “Hey, I need a time out.”
3. Find a “safe place” to sit with the anxiety. This may mean excusing yourself, taking a seat, finding a quiet space outside or inside. Even closing the office door for a few minutes can help.
4. Inhale slowly from the diaphragm counting to four as you do so, hold the breath for a couple of seconds, and then exhale slowly counting to four. Repeat as long as the symptoms feel overwhelming. Focus on the counting and the breath.
5. Become aware of the present moment and stimulate one or more of the 5 senses: Hold a furry keychain or grab an ice cube, focus on a relaxing song, suck on a small piece of candy and focus on the texture and taste, close your eyes and visualize a place of peace (the beach for me) or smell some nearby scents. (These are just a few examples and there are many we can come up with).
6. When possible, identify any distorted thoughts of self, others and situations. Try to “reframe” them (practicing “reframing” is often an exercise we do in therapy).
Say to yourself, “It’s time to move on, anxiety. I acknowledged you.” I like to put my hands on my heart, one gently on top of the other, when it is beating rapidly. It’s as if I am saying, “I am here and I realize the body is reacting.”
These are just the beginning steps to being present with uncomfortable emotions and feelings. We have to begin somewhere. Normalize your emotions and try to refrain from identifying them as “good or bad.” Share the bench without fear.