How to Break the Cycle of Anxiety
Fear is a natural reaction built into the mind-body system triggered by danger. After the danger is past, so is the fear response. But when fear spreads out into a general condition, it becomes a mysterious thing: anxiety. Anxious people are afraid even though there is nothing "out there" to be afraid of. Others overreact to triggers that ordinarily should be fairly easy to handle, such as being left alone for a day on their own. Still others are nearly paralyzed by highly specific phobias such as fear of heights, open spaces or insects. What is going on and what can we do about it?
Record numbers of people in modern society, predominantly women, suffer from mild to extreme anxiety. Billions of dollars are spent every year on tranquilizers to treat this condition, yet as the doctor writes out a prescription, he knows that the cause of the condition is unknown. Since human beings have lived with the fear response before recorded history, there should be a way to heal anxiety, and perhaps the best way to approach the mild-to-moderate types is not as a disease, but as a challenge. In anxious people, fear is allowed to roam freely; we can truly say that fear rules the mind. Yet it should be that you use your emotions, not that they use you. The challenge is to bring the fear response back under control. Otherwise, anxiety becomes ingrained and over time will spiral downward. The anxious person begins to be afraid of being afraid, because she knows that she has no power against it.
Because anxiety comes and goes, people tend to overreact when it appears, only to forget about it when it isn't present. In order to find an answer to anxiety, you must start by dealing with anxiety when it suddenly rears its head in panic attacks, but also healing its underlying causes. Anxious people also tend to be worriers, so that must be taken into account as well. For now, I will focus on how to deal with anxiety when it appears. The acute attack is the moment when sufferers need the most immediate help. Over the next two months, I will discuss healing the causes of anxiety as well as managing worry.
Fear and the Body
Fear is rooted in the body, which has a natural way of dealing with it, as it does with every feeling. First there is a trigger that causes the body to react with fear. Once the cause is gone, the body clears away the fear response. Finally, it calms down, returning to its normal state of balance. The body knows how to get out of fear, a knowledge it has possessed for millions of years. So why don't we let it?
People who suffer from anxiety bypass their bodies because they get trapped in their panicky thoughts. The voice of fear paints scenarios of disaster that seem believable. Panicky thoughts quickly become obsessive, running through one fearful outcome after another. Anxiety makes it all but impossible to make rational decisions; therefore, the voice of fear becomes ever more believable even when the disasters it foresees are not reasonable at all. For example, a phobic feels that he will die if he climbs a ladder, goes out of the house, touches a spider or whatever the phobia happens to be, yet in these cases the voice of fear is talking nonsense when viewed rationally. Rationality is not what matters here. It's what you believe that matters, always.
If you suffer from anxiety, your mind has gotten into the habit of holding on to fear instead of letting the response follow its natural cycle. What you need to do is to get it back into its normal rhythm. Your body wants to respond naturally but is being held back. Left to itself, the fear response isn't mental; it's physical. There are three steps to get the body accustomed to being in charge of fear again:
1. Get out of your mind and back into your body.
2. Clear the fear response.
3. Calm the body into its natural state of relaxation.
These steps must proceed in the order above. You can't use simple relaxation until the fear response has run its course, and the response won't end as long as the mind keeps fueling it with new reasons to be afraid. If you perform each step thoroughly, anxiety will subside and go away.
Step 1: Get Out of the Mind and Back into the Body
It is best to notice if you're having anxious thoughts early on, before the spiral of anxiety fully takes hold. To get out of the mind, sit or lie down in a quiet place. Close your eyes, and feel your body. The sensations won't be nice, because fear is cold, contracted, stiff, empty and trembling. Those are the basic sensations your body will be feeling. There may also be muscle weakness like when your knees turn to jelly or an ache around the heart. A sick feeling in the pit of the stomach is common. Even though these sensations aren't pleasant, rest assured, they want to go out. Your body always tries to discharge discomfort, but it can't do that while you are living in your head and blocking the release that needs to happen.
Take a few minutes and let yourself settle into the feeling of being in your body before you go on to step 2. For many anxious people even a few seconds feeling the body is too long. The mind jumps back in to take control. Before they know it, they are caught up in anxious thinking. Here are some tips on how to stay with your body instead of jumping back into your thoughts:
- Take deep breaths. Draw the air down into the pit of your stomach, then easily and slowly release it again.
- Follow your breath as it goes in and out, feeling it pass through your nose.
- Lower your shoulders, a very relaxing movement. Letting your head nod until your chin rests on your chest is also very relaxing.
- Sigh or yawn.
- Accompany your sighs or deep breathing with a low moan of relaxation.
Of course, you shouldn't do all of these at the same time. Once you are in your body again and not overwhelmed with anxious thoughts, proceed to the next step.
Step 2: Clear the Fear Response
Now that you feel your body, bring its unpleasant sensations to an end. By its nature, fear is temporary, but if it insists on sticking around, give a clear message: Let go. The message can't be in words, however. The body's language is entirely physical. So you need to send your instructions physically. This is unusual for anxious people, who have been sending mental signals of distress, vigilance, tenseness or worried anticipation for years. But, it isn't hard to do. Your body can be retrained.
If you try to attack it all at once, fear is too overwhelming. So break the body's sensations down and deal with them one at a time. This is a very effective way to regain a sense of control. Here are the characteristics of fear and the methods to alleviate the sensation.
What you feel: Cold. Your body shivers and trembles. The sensation of coldness adds to a sense of weakness, like being naked in winter.
What you do: Lie in bed under a blanket while doing the remaining steps. Make sure the room is warm. Have the lighting be soothing, neither too bright nor completely dark. Darkness accentuates anxiety.
What you feel: Stiff. Fear paralyzes the body. It goes tense and motionless, frozen with anticipation of something dreadful that is about to happen.
What you can do: Lie on your back, slowly stretch and twist. Be like a cat waking up from a nap. Reach up as far as you can, rotate your shoulders, wiggle your toes, and stretch your feet and legs.
What you feel: Breathless. Tense and vigilant, you stop breathing when you are afraid.
What you can do: Use conscious deep breaths, going as low into your abdomen as you can. Draw in air slowly and deeply until you feel your diaphragm start to bulge out. When it can't comfortably go out any farther, exhale with a whoosh. Don't push the air out, but let it escape as if your lungs were a balloon collapsing. Whenever you feel anxious and notice that you aren't breathing, consciously take a breath. The breath regulates the movement of emotions.
What you feel: Unable to make a sound. Fear tightens the throat, and even when you feel like screaming, you can't. At its extreme, this leads to a condition of silent horror.
What you can do: Make sounds that activate the fear to leave. This kind of "toning," as it is often called, takes practice. Sometimes you may want to scream into a pillow; other times a low, guttural sound is needed.
Laughter can help or a silent tone that goes out the top of your head. These sounds help carry away stuck feelings that are harder to get at. But each kind of sound has to come spontaneously. Don't scream and cry in order to exhaust yourself. The sound shouldn't be forced. Begin by humming as your attention scans your body, using a high tone in the head and a lower tone going down to the abdomen. Breathe the fear out with the sound. In time, you will find that bodily sensations can be eased out using many kinds of sounds. However, if you find yourself getting sadder or tenser, then the tone isn't helping. Deep breathing would be better at such moments.
What you feel: Contracted. Fear brings on a sense of seizing up or shrinking, drawing up into a tight protective ball. When that happens, many anxious people tighten up even more, as if growing smaller and smaller will make fear stop noticing them. But contraction has the opposite effect. It prevents the release of deeper residues of fear.
What you can do: Put your attention on your heart. See it filled with white light. Now, while you slowly breathe out, see the light expand. Don't force this; perhaps the light only expands by a small amount. Take another breath and repeat the process. See yourself expanding with the light, growing more expansive and open. Let the expanding light go beyond your body. See it fill the space around you. Now have it fill the room and finally go outside the room into the rest of the house and out into the surrounding world.
After you know how to do each of these techniques, you can combine them. But as you stretch and relax, always remember to keep breathing. These steps should be taken patiently, allowing at least 10 minutes to deal with your bodily sensations.
Step 3: Calm the Body
When you feel the sensations of fear subside, lie on your back with eyes closed and relax. Sink deeper into your body. Soothing music and aroma therapies are helpful as well, choosing scents that are traditionally known to help clear negative energies, like orange bergamot, camphor, clary sage, peppermint, clove bud and wintergreen.
Don't rush into activity. Your body will be in recovery mode for an hour or so. Drink some herbal tea, avoid stimulants like tobacco and caffeine. Let the calming process continue. Light reading and television are fine. Don't enter into situations that will bring up your anxiety again.
It is natural, however, for relaxation to bring up more physical sensations like the ones you've just cleared. Anxiety attacks in the middle of the night occur because your body is relaxed and therefore tries to release stuck energies of fear and tension. Adopt an approach of countering anxiety in its early stages with the aim of restoring the whole mind-body system to its natural balance. Don't rush or expect instant miracles.
Recovery is a process. Have patience with your body. The whole trick in gaining control over anxiety is to remember that your body is your best ally. Once you train it to let go of negative energies, it will willingly cooperate.
Learn more about Oprah & Deepak's 21-Day Meditation Experience Series.