How Leaning Into Your Anxiety Can Help You Manage It

A woman sits on a cushion surrounded by tea lights, meditatingWhen people call my office looking for relief from their anxiety, I explain that we all experience anxiety from time to time because our bodies are wired for it. It’s a neurobiological response that we inherited from our ancestors long, long ago. It’s about safety. It’s unlikely it will go away with a few tools or strategies.

Anxiety peaks when we perceive danger. That danger could be concrete, like being in the path of a dangerous hurricane, where the risk of losing your property or your life is very real. Or the danger you sense might be less clear. Maybe someone’s voice, a smell, or a song brings up uncomfortable feelings, leaving you feeling anxious. You might be able to pinpoint what made you fearful and anxious, but sometimes you get anxious and don’t know why. When this happens, it’s probably because an implicit memory has surfaced.

What Are Implicit Memories?

Implicit memories are memories that are stored in our unconscious. Most of the time, we’re not aware of them. They’re usually triggered by something in our environment—a smell, a taste or sound, the way something feels in our hands or under our feet, or the way something looks. When they surface, our bodies react to the potential danger. We feel anxious but we’re not sure why. We might feel like our anxiety came out of nowhere. What really happened was the body sensed a danger that was buried deep in our unconscious memory.

So, how do we manage anxiety that is sparked by something we aren’t fully aware of? First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that anxiety serves a purpose. It alerts us to danger so we can protect ourselves. That’s why it’s not going to go away altogether. If we can be okay with the fact we will always have some anxiety, we can start to work toward managing anxiety when it feels out of our control.

Be Curious About Your Anxiety

Before you begin, know it’s important to take care of yourself while you explore what’s happening. Take some slow, deep breaths; drink a cup of tea; get out your essential oils and diffuse them. Burn incense or a candle that smells good and be sure you’re in a place that’s comfortable and safe.

The first step is to be curious about how your anxiety shows up. At first, try exploring how your body feels when you’re not anxious. As you get to know your body’s reactions to stress, you’ll start to become aware that your body tells you when your anxiety is ramping up.

Next, you’ll want to pay attention to how your body talks to you. You might ask yourself:

  • “Where in my body do I feel my anxiety? Is it in my chest, my shoulders or throat, my back or legs?”
  • “How is my body reacting? Is my heart racing? Are my breaths shallow and quick? Am I hot or cold?”
  • “Does my stomach feel like butterflies, or nauseous?”

Acknowledging that your anxiety will surface from time to time, sometimes for what seems like no reason at all, gives you permission to be with it and to be curious about it when it shows up.

The next step is to dig deep into what happens in your head. Your views about what’s going on can affect how you react when you’re stressed or anxious. If you assume the worst, you’re probably going to feel anxious. That’s why it’s important to be curious about how you interpret things happening to you or around you. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking right now? What meaning am I making around this event?”

If an implicit memory triggered your anxiety, your body will feel like it’s actually in the past, at the time the memory formed. You want to bring yourself back to the here-and-now. To do that, take a look around and name a few things you can see hear, smell, or touch. This is called “grounding.”

Lastly, explore how your physical reactions and your thoughts about the anxiety make you feel. Research has shown that naming feelings can help ease intense, difficult emotions. Naming emotions reduces activity in the part of the brain that senses danger, and activates the part that promotes problem-solving and curiosity. Try to pinpoint the feeling with your description. Instead of saying you’re happy or sad, you might say you’re feeling elated or rejected.

Offer Yourself Compassion

It’s really important not to judge yourself when you investigate your anxiety. If you can, just note what’s going on and respond with curiosity. Ask yourself how you would respond if a friend were experiencing the same thing. Can you offer yourself that same compassion?

Bring Anxiety Out Into the Open

Do you see what’s happening here? Instead of pushing the anxiety away, yelling at yourself for being anxious, or trying to ignore the feeling, you’re leaning into it. You’re beginning to get to know it better, you’re approaching it with some compassion, and you’re allowing it to be there while you investigate. As you go through this process, you might find the anxiety begins to lessen. Anxiety loves secrets and hiding, so bringing it out into the open can reduce its power.

Acknowledging that your anxiety will surface from time to time, sometimes for what seems like no reason at all, gives you permission to be with it and to be curious about it when it shows up.

Reference:

University of California-Los Angeles. (2007, June 22). Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070622090727.htm

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, therapist in Annapolis, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • shayla

    shayla

    November 8th, 2017 at 11:03 AM

    It will always be a little easier to manage those feelings when you accept them.

  • Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    November 8th, 2017 at 12:40 PM

    Shayla- You’re right! Accepting our feelings can them easier to manage, but for many of us the process of accepting and acknowledging feelings in the moment can take a bit of practice. Thanks for your comment!

  • Tyler

    Tyler

    November 8th, 2017 at 3:52 PM

    I’m learning that anxiety can’t kill you. Peering into each morning it is like standing down a bully. Explore it. Roll around it. Ask yourself “What hurts most today?” and then lean into that. Not pleasant but educational into how much control you really have.

    Yes, you’ll have to face it again and again. You’ll have to learn to be quiet and honest to yourself through simple meditation. But eventually your brain will rewire and the terrible peaks and valleys will lessen and become manageable. At a time of hurtful stress you’ll eventually learn say “Oh … that’s me being anxious again.” and not believe the message that you’re weak. You’ll peer into it for a while and eventually realize that it hurts but it doesn’t run you.

    The first steps in recovery of your childhood horrors is to realize how little power those past demons have over you now. The second steps are learning how much power you have over your future. No one has the right to tell you who you are except you. So, who are you?

  • Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    November 8th, 2017 at 6:14 PM

    Tyler- What a powerful response. Your description of of being able to see and show up as we are, imperfections, anxieties and all really speaks to the power of mindfulness and meditation. Thank you for sharing your insight!

  • beth

    beth

    November 9th, 2017 at 7:51 AM

    I am tired of letting these feelings control me. I feel emboldened to make a change in my life and I am thinking that from reading this I have to accept that anxiety may always be a part of my life, but it is something that doesn’t ‘ have to make me weak, but that rather I cam get strong from it once I learn the right tools for coping with it in a healthier way.
    Fingers crossed that I can get with the right person who can help set me on that path!

  • Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    Elizabeth Cush, LCPC

    November 9th, 2017 at 2:08 PM

    Beth- Thanks for your comment! I hope you find someone who will help you manage your anxiety, instead of it managing you. :) It takes courage to reach out for help!

  • Lori Johnson LAC, LPC

    Lori Johnson LAC, LPC

    November 12th, 2017 at 8:34 AM

    This is a great article about the paradox of anxiety. Leaning in is again instinct and yet its the way through anxiety ruling a persons life. Thank you for your clinical insight.

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