“I have been through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” – Mark Twain
Do you ever feel completely stressed out? Anxious? Tense and freaked out and ready for it all to collapse/explode/implode/come crashing down? You’re not alone.
Things can go wrong in life. Absolutely.
But the area of our brain that tells us the world is on fire and to RUN! is lighting up more and more over situations that are not life threatening. Yet our bodies and minds react as if we are indeed, about to die. Adrenaline pumps, our blood pressure raises, our heart speeds up. Ever felt that? Yup.
We are hard-wired to keep ourselves safe by looking out for danger. This helped us centuries ago, as we wandered through unchartered territory and needed to hunt and gather and kill or be killed.
But today, we get freaked out when we can’t find our smartphone. We tense up when we think about everything we have to do in one day. We contract and get ready to protect ourselves at the thought of taking a mid-term. Basically, to our brain, everything reads as “Danger! Danger!”
The part of our lovely gray matter that keeps lighting up over and over — over pretty much small potatoes — is called the amygdala. It’s the fight or flight response to life. And it’s needed…up to a point.
The “higher” parts of our brain, like the neo cortex, help us make sense of what we perceive. And we can engage this part when we stop, take a breath, and gain perspective.
I used to be so strangled by anxiety on a regular basis, I couldn’t get out of bed some days. Seriously. I was a wreck, 24/7.
Anxiety would grip me from the moment I opened my eyes, after a night of tossing and turning and battling insomnia due to an overactive, fearful mind. I’d lie in bed, my body contracted, my breathing shallow, my chest tightening.
Once I began doing mindfulness meditation, I was more easily able to view these bodily responses simply as sensations. No conclusions needed to be drawn just yet…I’d just simply breathe through the sensations.
And the trick was, I had to drop the desire for the sensations to disappear and just simply be with the sensations. Lovingly opening to them, being patient. Breathing…breathing…noticing sensations.
I also learned to view the thoughts that arose as a result of the bodily sensations as merely “mind”. Your mind is a computer: constantly assessing, analyzing, judging, labeling. It doesn’t mean that every thought is the truth. But we take it all as truth, and respond accordingly.
Here are five ways you can begin to work with anxiety and find peace.
1. Pause and breathe
I know, cliché, right? But it works. Breathing through your nose, filling your belly, and taking long, slow exhales will stimulate your vagus nerve and tell your fight or flight response to chill out. Fill your belly with your breath. Be patient with your breathing. Slow it down. Count to three, very long exhales before making any kind of decision based on fear and before listening to any thoughts that stem from your fear.
2. View anxiety as sensation
Where does the anxiety dance in your body? Your stomach? Chest? Hands? Rest your attention there and open to the sensations. We get into trouble when we resist what is occurring. Opening to the sensations of fear or dread may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually what’s needed to get the circuitry firing differently. Keep bringing your attention back to the sensations and where they live. Are they hot? Cold? Fuzzy? Sharp? Keep opening and being with the sensations and watch what happens to them. They just might change and shift and become something else altogether.
3. Don’t believe your mind
I know you’re brilliant and creative and you think the most amazing thoughts! But when you’re anxious, you just don’t deliver your best thinking. No one does. So when you’re stressed or anxious, and you’ve noticed you are (this is key), see the thoughts as a result of the sensations, and not necessarily the truth. You haven’t taken the test yet, so you aren’t currently dealing with failing it. Your friends haven’t completely turned on you because you turned down an invite this weekend, it’s your mind inventing stories. No matter how much you tell yourself that the thing you fear is going to happen, you’re not there yet. There’s a possibility — hell, a big chance — that it won’t ever happen. Your life won’t end because of a failed test. Your body and brain responds as if that’s already true, but it just isn’t. Remember that thing you were so scared of when you were three…or six? You might look back now and see you were afraid for no real reason, yet it seemed like the biggest deal way back then. Breathe and focus on what is occurring right now, in this moment. Take it moment by moment. Then you can be at your strongest, most effective, and most creative.
4. Be kind to yourself
Self-compassion is required in life. Without it, you’re going to have a hard time. I struggled with being kind to myself. I felt wrong, bad, broken, and definitely not deserving of my patience, kindness, and love. People yammered on about having “self-love” and that seemed insurmountable to me. That’s why, when working with my students, I emphasize self-compassion and kindness toward yourself over “self-love.” Engage in the behavior of kindness, first and foremost, and watch what begins to happen in your life. So when you get sucked into your looping thoughts, obsessive mind, racing heart, and clutching gut, remember that it’s just experience, and send yourself some kindness for being human. We could all use some, including you.
5. Practice, practice, practice
So now practice all of this! There’s no magic wand to working with anxiety and stress. It doesn’t suddenly go away when you pass the test, get the dream boyfriend, or get accepted to your number one college. Anxiety is usually non-situational. It’s a habit and it takes time to break a habit, as well as patience, persistence, practice and a trust in the process.
You don’t have to be a stress-case! I promise there’s another way to live.
So practice this, and reach out and tell me what happens. As a fellow (reformed) stress-case, I’d love to hear from you.
About the Author: Sarah TAYLOR is one of Your Monthly Mentors, a meditation teacher and a Master Level Reiki Practitioner, as well as an actor, comedian, and writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Drawing from a Buddhist background as well as the other non-dual spiritual traditions, her classes and talks are accessible and filled with humor. She was a series regular for three seasons on NBC’s “In Gayle We Trust”, can be seen in the comedy feature, “The Golden Scallop” and has made appearances on Hot In Cleveland, Bunheads, and numerous other TV shows and films. Read More…