Sometimes anxiety can be so overwhelming it can be crippling. What do we know about some of this anxiety? Let’s look at some reasons why this might happen and some ways to work through it all.
Anxiety can be a beast.
For some of us, anxiety can become so intense that we are unable to stay present and focus on what is happening in the moment. It can flood our thoughts to the point of freezing up. It can leave a person feeling helpless and powerless to its prowess. It’s not uncommon for feelings of anxiety to feel like our primary way of functioning. We need to learn to tame the beast and take control, but how?
First, it may be helpful to understand how anxiety can sometimes creep up on our lives. It is not uncommon for anxiety to become a learned behavior- the result of negative or even traumatic situations. For example, a child may touch something that is very hot which may trigger a response- such as pain or a very uncomfortable feeling which took them by surprise. Touching that item was a learning moment and the child thinks, “I didn’t like that feeling and it scared me.” The object and the response are tied together. Over time the same child may experience the sensation of something hot, even warm, as a sign to stay away- even if there is no real danger present. Wishing to avoid the danger, when presented with a similar object or sensation, the child may react with fear and anxiety each time it is present. (Sometimes we see it in other areas, like a fear of dogs, loud noises, and even interactions with other people.)
As adults, we may tend to build up anxiety as a result of experiences that created intense discomfort. We may become defensive and even avoid the discomfort. The pattern emerges and slowly becomes reinforced while fears start to become a primary feeling. Our minds are like a library of experiences where emotion is often attached. Each time we experience an event, we likely have assigned an emotion to it which reinforces our experience and sets the stage for similar future events. Eating something that tastes good might bring up a happy feeling- we expect that each time we eat that food, it will be pleasant. If we ate a food and felt sick afterwards, we may tend to avoid it in the future. For some, it may even bring a reminder of that sick feeling which is re-experienced.
When enough time passes, sometimes those events get distorted and our library of memories can get a little mixed up. If an early fear of dogs occurred after a traumatizing event, we learn to assign fear when we see a dog like the one who scared us. This may expand to having fears when we see a dog in the distance, hear a dog barking, or even see a video of a dog. It triggers a response that tells us, “This is really uncomfortable! I need to get away!” We may anticipate the worst outcome and even more reinforcement starts occurring. Now we are thinking of how this situation can get worse- adding to our library of experiences and emotions.
If you find yourself experiencing intense anxiety, it’s possible some of the above explanation may be contributing to prolonged anxiety. Anxiety is sometimes a pretty quiet part of us so it can build up over time without realizing it is happening. If you’re reading this and feeling powerless over your feelings of anxiety, perhaps some of the following information may help. Keep in mind that it may take some time to develop effective coping skills, especially if anxiety has been a part of your life for quite a while. Practice as often as possible! For all these techniques, it is very important to push out worry thoughts. If they come up- refocus your thoughts on the technique you are trying.
Grounding Technique- Engaging the 5 senses
If anxiety feels intense, you might need to reset your focus by grounding yourself. Grounding techniques are intended to redirect your thoughts to what is happening in the moment. When we are overwhelmed with anxiety, thoughts might like to linger to future events, negative thoughts of the past, and keeping us distracted from the moment. It may also help to say each thing aloud as you try this technique.
Engage each of your senses:
5- See 5 things. (Look for 5 things around you.)
4- Touch 4 things. (Touch a paper in front of you, a finger, your clothes, etc.)
3- Listen for 3 sounds. (Or say 3 sounds that calm you.)
2- Smell 2 things. (If nothing is close by, name 2 of your favorite scents.)
1- Taste one thing. (Carry a mint or gum with you- you can also use this as a “smell”. Or say one thing you can taste.)
Mindfulness is likely a buzzword in psychology you hear about quite a bit. It can be confusing to figure out if it’s to distract thoughts, replace thoughts, or stay in the present moment. Sometimes, it’s a bit of all three! For this example, we will consider it a means to stay in the present moment. Since we are talking about anxiety here, we want to bring our thoughts to a better focus. A basic exercise here is using your breath to focus. (It can be useful to use your body to stay engaged in the moment.)
Find a comfortable position while seated. It may be helpful to limit distractions- going to a place with less or no noise, no interruptions, turn off cell phones, tv, etc. (Alternatively, if music helps, feel free to play some relaxing music.)
Take a deep breath in through your nose and fill your lungs. Do your best to visualize the path of your breath down into your lungs. (Some people find it helpful to imagine their lungs as if balloons.) Gently fill your lungs with your breath.
Slowly exhale through your mouth- continue visualizing the path your breath takes as it exits your body.
Repeat the exercise- and imagine the breath in is positive energy- while the breath out expels the negative energy.
Art can be a useful technique to refocus thoughts. Use a coloring book, write in a journal, fold paper- do origami! If you have paints, get those out. If you like to re-purpose items, get started on a project like painting an old lamp, sewing a new cover for pillows, or stitching together old clothes to make a crazy quilt. Being creative can also mean developing skills- like practicing sewing by repairing a tear in a shirt or socks. Cook a meal trying different or new ingredients. Engage your creative mind.
Cleaning and Organizing
Sometimes we loathe each of these tasks, but they may save us from a cycle of worrying. Reorganize your closet by color. Alphabetize books. Organize a pile of shoes. If the kitchen sink looks overwhelming, focus on one task- like cleaning any plates. You only need to start with one thing- then commit yourself to doing one more thing. You may be surprised that once you focus on a small goal, it will be no time before the whole job is complete. Sometimes when we engage movement, like scrubbing a sink, we are also connecting with our body, which can put thoughts on what is happening in that moment.
Some of these techniques may help, some may not. What’s important is that you try something. It may not bring complete relief from your feelings of anxiety, but it is likely it will help in a small way. Again, it’s important to keep practicing and continue working on pushing out thoughts of worry that come up. Make the effort to try a technique more than once before deciding it doesn’t help. (Try it several times.) After all, you are challenging anxiety- something that has probably taken a long time to develop. It needs a little nurturing to change.
If you have been struggling to make changes in how you manage your anxiety, consider reaching out for help with a professional counselor or therapist. There are times when anxiety is more complex, such as past trauma experiences or obsessive-compulsive thoughts, and working with a specialist may help. Remember, it can take time to develop the right skills to work through anxiety, overall, be patient with yourself while making the effort to change.
Sheilagh is an Artist and Art Therapist who believes in healing with art and creativity.