It is estimated that over twenty million Americans between the ages of 18-54 suffer from some diagnosable form of anxiety.
While these folks often experience symptoms that render them unable to function, the majority of us experience the more commonplace acute attacks.
It is normal to experience anxiety prior to or during novel or perceived high stakes situations, such as when traveling or going on a job interview or a first date. Some people experience anxiety when separating from a loved one, if for only a relatively brief period of time. Even when encountered infrequently anxiety can occur with such intensity so as to cause us to limit our behavior or restrict certain activities. If anxiety is severely impacting your life, or that of a loved one, you should consult with your family physician about it. But for most people who experience occasional anxiety, the best approach is to learn how to manage it.
Anxiety can be understood as having two distinct component parts: the physical sensation we experience in our bodies and the mental/emotional meaning we attach to that sensation. Examples of the latter might be Oh, I’m going to be late for my flight or She’ll never go out with me. Of the two, the physical is the more basic.
Most people experience the physical sensation in their chest, as something akin to a weak electrical simulation, a tingling or a mild sensation of needles and pins. Often people may experience such symptoms as intestinal discomfort, tingling in their extremities or sweating as well, but I always thought of these sensations as reactions to anxiety, what is called a secondary reaction, rather than the anxiety itself.
The physical sensation of anxiety is no more than life energy. Our bodies, as individual and unique energy systems, are capable of handling just so much of this energy. Any excess tends to be experienced as discomfort, unless and until we are able to increase our body’s capacity to tolerate the additional energy, in which case what was once experienced as surplus now can safely be integrated. We need to learn the technique involved in mastering anxiety in private and practice it often, so that when we encounter anxiety in a given public situation we are better able to handle it.
One of the important factors in dealing with anxiety is that we always seem to want to run away from it, primarily because we have never learned how to manage it properly. That is why we often see the secondary symptoms I mentioned earlier. So, to begin, you must consider entertaining the notion of meeting and making friends with your anxiety as opposed to fleeing from it: it is, after all, just another part of you. The simple act of turning to it, as opposed to turning away from it, already alters your whole relationship to anxiety.
Next time you feel anxious and have fifteen minutes and the opportunity to be alone and undisturbed, try this: sit or lay down comfortably. Close your eyes and focus your attention on the sensation in your chest while breathing normally. Remember, the mental/emotional component is completely separate and apart from the physical; they are not automatically joined or one-in-the-same in nature. Focus on just experiencing the sensation in your chest. If you can’t stop thinking about the mental/emotional meaning, just repeat to yourself I’m having a sensation in my chest. Breathe into the sensation; picture your breath as dissolving into and embracing the sensation, like a fog rolling over a landscape. Consider that you are meeting the sensation and that doing so will not harm you. Soon you will begin to experience the sensation for just what it is, excitement; not excitement necessarily about anything, just pure physical energetic excitement, like electricity.
You might begin to notice that as you expand your body’s capacity to tolerate this excitement it has rather a pleasant quality to it. Any unpleasantness is a result of two things: the difference between the level of energy involved and your body’s capacity to handle it and the tendency to want to flee from the experience as opposed to meeting and embracing it.
The more you practice this exercise, the better you will become at managing anxiety at any given time and in any given situation, because you understand what is happening and you have confidence in your ability to deal with it: pause for a moment, take a deep breath or two and recall that you don’t have to flee. Depending upon your unique relationship with anxiety, it may take you many trials to achieve the results I outlined above. If it does come hard, don’t get down on yourself and don’t give up trying. The very fact that you are making the effort changes your relationship to your anxiety in a powerful and beneficial way. Repeating your attempts, while consciously dropping any self-critical or discouraging thoughts about them, is a good way to practice self-compassion and increase your sense of self-esteem.
Psychologically speaking, anxiety is a function of anticipating and attempting to control future events. The calming technique I outlined above works in part because it brings us back into the present moment. Identify your goals and have a plan in place for meeting them, but then sit back, relax and enjoy the ride. Besides, think of how boring life would be if we didn’t push ourselves beyond the limits of our comfortability from time to time.
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