Unlocking Anxiety: How To Use Anxiety To Create Clarity
by JANIE LOUBSER
Anxiety means different things to different people. It exists on a continuum that can range from an uneasy feeling to full blown panic attacks. In this article, I am going to work mainly with the form of anxiety that is triggered by general worries and irritations.
I find it helpful to see anxiety as a lock.
A few years ago, I found myself trapped in a very confined space. The door to our office toilet had jammed shut behind me and because we were experiencing a power outage at the time, I was in pitch darkness. I didn't have my phone with me and I began to grow very anxious, even close to a panic attack. When I yelled for help, nobody could hear me… at least not for a good hour and a half. There I was, with a day fully booked with clients and I was completely stuck.
Sitting there, feeling utterly helpless and afraid and I started to realize something about myself that I couldn’t ignore: in a strange way, I actually felt locked and trapped in my own life. I’d worked hard every single day with back-to-back consultations five days a week and had strict rules for myself that I would never fail or disappoint my clients. Yet, here I was faced with letting people down because I simply couldn’t show up. The hardest realization though and the most difficult one to admit, was that this good life I’d worked so hard for wasn’t really making me happy. It was subtle in a ‘is this it?’ kind of feeling. I didn’t feel enlivened, I didn’t feel free. By the time I had managed to calm my anxiety down, I actually enjoyed being alone. It was as if I now had a legitimate reason to take a break and rest a bit, I had time out from the world and surprisingly things weren't just becoming clear, it felt good!
By the time someone found me and the locksmith arrived, it still took another thirty minutes for him to get the door open. He couldn't figure out how the mechanism worked so he had to break the lock open - leaving the door and the lock badly damaged. That experience, feeling trapped and panicked, taught me many things about myself; it made me change the way I looked at anxiety but it was the start of me making some pretty significant changes to my life as well. What this story shows us is that if we understand the lock, it is very easy to find the right key to unlock it. What this story further shows us is how damaging and painful it can be if we try to force anxiety away.
Anxiety cannot be forced away. It needs to be calmed down. I like using the word soothed. By soothing anxiety you slow it down. And once it has slowed down, you can think about it. And even use to learn things about yourself.
How anxiety locks us in
Anxiety locks us physically, emotionally and mentally. Physically, you may feel tight and unable to breathe; mentally, you may feel overwhelmed and flooded by thoughts; emotionally, you may feel trapped and out of control. As if that is not bad enough, we then have a reaction to the anxiety which creates a second lock. This second lock consists of your thoughts about the anxious state you are in: I can’t cope. I’m useless. I’m going crazy. I’m going to die. Anxiety is complicated and debilitating, it is serious and seen as a global epidemic. Anxiety is especially serious when it forms part of other diagnoses such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Although I am passionate about explaining complex psychological concepts in simple ways, I am not saying that anxiety is simple. If you have found an effective way to treat your anxiety then you can use my ideas as companions to the treatment you are already on, but please don’t stop your treatment.
How we usually deal with anxiety
Take a moment and think about what you do when you feel anxious. Do you feel afraid and run? Or do you get angry and fight? Or do you feel overwhelmed and paralysed? These are all habitual ways of dealing with the discomfort that anxiety causes. We do it instinctively. But if you can become aware of your habitual ways, you can start to choose new ways of dealing with anxiety.
Anxiety is usually seen as a problem that needs to be fixed and a feeling that needs to be taken away. We tend to tell ourselves to stop thinking about the thing that is making you anxious or to think happy thoughts. It doesn’t work, does it? The harder you try not to think about that thing, the more anxious you become. The human mind wants to think and it wants to know, so these thoughts and feelings can’t really be stopped. Instead of trying not to think about it, I’m suggesting that you do think about it.
Before anxiety can be thought about and used, it needs to be calmed and soothed. By calming down anxiety, its negative effects are slowed down. Once it has slowed down you can invite it and use it as valuable information about yourself.
- Start with a daily practice such as meditation. This practice will heal the mind over time as well as help you develop the skill to notice when you are anxious and to bring the mind back to the present moment. You can read more about the daily practices I recommend here. Meditation, mindful attention to your activities and mindful moments during the day slow your mind down and helps you to feel calm and have clarity
- When you feel anxious, first take time out to calm yourself physically. The physical calming down should be your first goal before you attempt to calm down your thoughts and feelings. In order to calm down the physical effects of anxiety you can activate relaxation. Instead of trying to suppress the anxiety you activate another physical state that can override the anxious state. You can use any healthy way that relaxes you, such a going for a walk, dancing, even knitting. Focusing on your breath also activate relaxation in the body. The secret here is to focus on your body in a positive uplifting way. Watching TV or updating your Facebook won’t help.
There may be times when it will not be enough to just calm down the anxiety on a physical level. In fact, if you want lasting effects then it will serve you well to learn how to calm down your thoughts and feelings as well.
- You can calm down your thoughts and feelings by being curious about what they are trying to tell you. All the different thoughts and feelings create a state in which you don’t know what you are thinking and feeling. It is that state of not knowing that makes you feel confused and overwhelmed. By paying attention to your thoughts when you are anxious, you are telling the anxiety ‘I am watching you. I know what you are doing.’ This is a clear signal that you are taking control and not a victim of the feelings. You are using your thoughts to change how you feel. As you realise and believe that you have the power to do this, you will start to feel more confident about yourself. It is such a good feeling to know that you have it in you to calm down your anxiety.
- The fourth thing you can do with anxiety is to use it to learn what your likes and dislikes are. When you are anxious you are most likely experiencing something or anticipating something that you don’t like and don’t want. Identifying this can give you clarity about what you actually want.
- The most valuable outcome of using anxiety is greater self-confidence and belief in your ability. This is something that will grow as a result of your growing awareness when you are anxious and your ability to use it in a positive way.
If you are curious about learning the advanced skills to put numbers 1-5 into action then you are welcome to access the various ways in which we can assist. You can enrol for our ReCreate You programme, book a coaching session or buy our workbooks.