Sometimes, anxiety feels a lot like riding too fast on a spinning carousel at an amusement park. It takes hold of a particular thought or fear and spins on it nonstop. It’s frustrating and exhausting, and it can feel out of our control.
The temptation in that situation is to do one of two things to feel better: (1) distract ourselves from the thoughts or (2) indulge them. Distraction maneuvers include watching television, calling a friend, taking a pill, or checking Facebook. Indulging behaviors might look like making endless lists and notes about anxious thoughts, researching whatever the issue is for hours, or calling people to talk through the same problems over and over.
The tough truth is that we can’t run from what’s bothering us, and we can’t necessarily “solve” it, either. If our minds are telling us to be very worried about a work meeting tomorrow, the answer is not to spend hours thinking about that meeting. This gives us the illusion of control—“If I can imagine every possible issue that could arise during the meeting, I’ll be able to handle whatever happens”—while keeping us tired out and high-strung. Trying to solve an irrational fear through rational thought is, as it sounds, impossible.
Instead, we have to do something that feels pretty counterintuitive: To keep anxiety at bay, we should sit with it. This means choosing actions that address the anxiety itself rather than dealing with the subject we think we’re anxious about. “Sitting with the feelings” sounds a lot harder; who wants to lean into feeling scared and worried? But we’ve already tried distraction and indulgence, so we know those are temporary fixes without any long-term gain. Once the fear about the work meeting is soothed, another problem will be waiting to frighten us, and we’ll have to start working feverishly again to calm that thought.
There are many ways to attack anxiety more productively. The tools below are described in their simplest form. If you see one that appeals to you, a professional, a book, or even a website could help you flesh them out and practice them. Other ideas can be tried here and now, on your own.
To keep anxiety at bay, we should sit with it. This means choosing actions that address the anxiety itself rather than dealing with the subject we think we’re anxious about.
When your mind is spinning, there’s a story that you’ve created. First, try to figure out the words the anxiety is using to scare you. Perhaps they’re “don’t bother asking that girl on a date, she’ll never say yes.” Or “if you drive on the freeway, you will be in danger.” Write down this message in the clearest words possible, then see if there’s any deeper message underneath it. If you’re afraid to ask someone out, could there be a fear underneath that such as “no one ever likes me”? Does anxiety about driving also include the larger worry that “the world is unsafe”? When we uncover the core message, we can sometimes see that it’s exaggerated and devastating. It’s a huge generalization.
Next, try to find a replacement thought that is more balanced, more realistic. It doesn’t have to be something magical like “everyone always loves me!” or “no one ever gets into car accidents!” These will be difficult to focus on because they’re hard to trust. A more reasoned statement might be “I can handle rejection” or “some women have wanted to date me in the past.” When you come up with a thought that feels more positive and easy to believe in, consciously stop yourself whenever the anxious thought arises, push it away, and replace it with the new thought. Over and over, practice the new words to create a new thought process.
If you’re drawn more to pictures than to words, visualizations are a wonderful and powerful way to calm your spinning mind. Try to discern how your anxiety looks to you. Maybe it’s a field of pulsating red, or a spiky ball. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Imagine holding your anxiety in your hands. Feel its texture, its weight, its temperature. Then imagine chilling this anxiety with a breeze of fresh, cool air. See it shrinking in your hand. It becomes as small as a medicine ball, then a kickball, then a handball. Soon, it’s as tiny as a ball bearing. Continue to hold and shrink the anxiety whenever it occurs.
Another way to calm anxiety with images is through creative visualization. There are many such resources available online as audio, video, or written scripts. These stories walk you through a calming experience, simultaneously helping your body relax and moving your mind away from the distressing thoughts and into a more peaceful, controlled state. Practicing these mini-meditations trains your mind to focus less on outside subjects, which we have little control over, and more on our inner selves, which we have complete control over (although this often doesn’t feel true). One lovely visualization can be found here.
3. Physical Feelings
Finally, relaxation and anxiety management can be found by changing how your body is functioning. Sometimes, anxiety starts in the body instead of as a thought. The sympathetic nervous system gets triggered, we feel a thumping heartbeat, quicker breathing, and twitchy muscles, and then the mind looks for something to blame it on. What am I so upset about? Suddenly we’re searching for a cause and choosing targets that may or may not be relevant or significant. It must be my relationship. And then we’re off on the cycle of repetitive thoughts that feel unmanageable.
Anxious thoughts and an anxious response in our bodies are almost always linked, and they need to be dealt with on both levels. First, taking deep breaths and slowing our body movements can help bring some oxygen and blood flow back to the brain, making it easier to think logically. Experts suggest breathing in to a count of four and out to a count of five, both through the nose. The slower out-breath mimics breathing patterns while we sleep, and can help trick the brain into thinking we’re relaxed before we actually are.
These techniques represent just the beginning of ways to address anxiety directly, without trying to run from it. The good news is, once you find a way (or two or three) of gaining control of your spinning thoughts, there can be a powerful sense of mastery and relief. The carousel does not have to rule your mind and body. Rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, you can slow the ride, dismount from the horse, and get a good night’s sleep.
© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, LMFT, therapist in Tarzana, California
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