An anxious mind is a strong, powerful mind, as anyone who has tried to rationalise themselves out of anxiety will tell you. An anxious mind can outrun, outpower and outwit rationality and logic any day of the week. What if you could harness the strength and power of that fiercely protective mind and use it to work for you instead of against you?
Anxiety exists on a spectrum and we all experience it at some level. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t. Anxiety is a very normal response from a strong, healthy brain that thinks there might be trouble about, and instantly responds by making us stronger, faster, more powerful, more alert versions of ourselves.
Like any good thing though, too much is too much. When the brain is oversensitive to threat, it puts us on high alert even when there is no need to be. This is when anxiety becomes intrusive and hard to live with. It turns from the gentle security guard who shows up when needed, to the crasher who steals the joy, tells stories about nameless dangerous things, and cozies up beside you so close it’s hard to breathe, think and be.
Why is anxiety so powerful?
Anxiety is there to keep us safe. It is a call to action to fight or flee so we can move through danger. It’s there to keep us out of the way of trouble so the signals it sends have to be strong. The problem is that those signals aren’t always accurate. Anxiety is instinctive and automatic. It’s been practising its moves for thousands of years. That’s the thing about evolution – sometimes it works for us, sometimes it makes us vulnerable to anxiety.
Anxiety was never meant to get in our way, but rather, to get us out of the way of danger. The part of the brain that drives anxiety thinks it’s doing the right thing. The more we fight it, the harder it will work to convince us that there’s danger and that we need to act.
So if fighting an anxious mind doesn’t work, what then?
We know that an anxious mind is a strong, powerful mind. What if we could harness the strength and power of that fiercely protective mind and use it to work for us instead of against us? As strong as a mind can be in its experience of anxiety, it can be equally strong in calming it. Anxiety might still show up, but rather than appearing as the wolf at the door and sending your fiercely protective brain into a panic, it can be greeted more in the way of, ‘Oh hey there – I know you. Take a seat over there.’
We know that over time, mindfulness works to build and strengthen a brain against anxiety, but there are aspects of mindfulness that can be used in the midst of anxiety to find calm. With practice, they can be called on at will to turn down the volume on anxious thoughts and feelings, and any other symptoms that anxiety tends to keep company with.
But go gently …
Changing mindset involves small, repeated steps. Each step builds on the one before it, and this takes time. That’s okay though – there’s no hurry. Remember, your mind has been doing what it’s doing for a while and it will take a while to unlearn its habits.
Those habits have had a good reason for being there. Anxious thoughts and anxious feelings keep us alive. They put us on standby to deal with anything that gets in the way. It’s going to take some convincing to show them that actually, the only thing getting in the way, are them.
Don’t try to do all of these strategies at once. Trying to keep a hold of so many different things will make your mind do the equivalent of throwing its hands in the air and walking away. Instead, choose one at a time and do it for a short while at a time. Small steps, but important ones. If you try to do them all at once, there is the risk of it feeling too hard. When things feel difficult, it is normal to run back to what’s familiar. The way around this is to go gently. Here’s how …
Dealing with Anxiety – Using the power of an anxious mind.
Anxiety is the power of the mind against the mind. That power is your greatest asset – and it’s an exceptional one. Now to claim it back so you can use it in a way that will build and strengthen you.
Be present. Be where you are, not where your anxiety wants to take you.
Anxiety works by using a solid collection of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘maybes’ to haul even the strongest, bravest mind from a present that feels manageable and calm, to a future that feels uncertain and threatening. Experiment with staying fully present in the moment. Anchor yourself by opening up your senses. What do you see, feel, hear, taste, know? Stay with what is actually happening, rather than what might happen. If this feels uncomfortable, put a time limit on it, let’s say, two minutes to start with. Spend this time fully experiencing the world as it is around you now.
Every time you do this, you will be strengthening your ability to pull back from the anxious thoughts that steal you away from the safety and security of where you are. Try to get into a regular practice each day, for however long you can – two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes – it doesn’t matter. There’s no right amount, but the longer the better. The main thing is to keep doing it. The brain strengthens and rewires with experience, and this is an experience that is so strengthening and healthy, your brain will love for it.
Try: ‘Right now, I’m here and I’m safe. I see the sky. I feel the breeze against my skin. I hear my footsteps’
Be patient. Don’t be in a hurry to change your thoughts and feelings.
Thoughts and feelings will come, they will stay, and then they will go. No thought or feeling stays forever. Be patient and know that whatever you are feeling, or whatever you are thinking, it will pass.
Experiment with being fully present, without needing to push away any thoughts or feelings. There is no anxious feeling and no anxious thought that is stronger than you. However big they feel, you will always be stronger and more resilient. Be patient. Be open. Be curious. See what wisdom lies at the end of your anxious thoughts and feelings if you stay with them, rather than fight them. Let them stay for long enough to realise that you have no need for them today.
Try: ‘An anxious thought. That’s okay – you’ll leave when you’re ready.’
Be an observer. Watch your thoughts and feelings without engaging with them.
Anxiety has a way of drawing you in and making you engage with every anxious thought that comes in thinking distance of you. It’s exhausting! Experiment with standing back and watching your thoughts as an observer, knowing that when they are ready, they will pass. Sometimes we need to engage with thoughts and feelings, and sometimes we need to stand back and wait for them move on. Try imagining your thoughts and feelings as a bubble, and then watch them float by.
Experiment with letting them be, without needing to change them, understand them, or talk yourself out of them. Imagine them hovering in the air around you, without becoming a part of you. Just let them be, without holding on too tightly. When they are ready to go, let them go. Think of it like this – rather than standing in the middle of a thunderstorm, trying to change the direction of the wind, imagine yourself watching that storm through a window, knowing that it will pass.
Try: ‘There’s a thought about what might happen if it rains on the holiday. Look at that. Didn’t know that was there.’
‘A feeling about going to the interview. Interesting.’
Trust your anxiety. Know that it won’t hurt you.
There are a lot of reasons anxiety feels so awful. Two of the big ones are because it comes with a bunch of ‘unknowns’, and because the physical feelings don’t make sense. A curious, strong, thoughtful mind will try to put these feelings and thoughts in context, because the idea that they are free-floating and not attached to anything feels even worse. You might find yourself wondering if your physical symptoms are a sign of something more serious. You might wonder if that ‘bad feeling’ means something bad is actually going to happen. You might worry about the worry (this is common with anxiety) – what’s driving it, how to you stop it. that your anxiety isn’t a sign of something bigger. This is hard to do but the more you practice it, the stronger you will be at calming your anxious thoughts and not believing the messages they contact. Anxiety is there as a warning, not a prediction. Feel the security and safety of what that means for you.
Try: ‘My heart feels as though it is pounding through my chest. This is anxiety. It’s not a symptom of something bigger. I’m safe.’
Trust yourself. You are strong. You are resourceful. You will cope. You always have.
Trust that whatever happens, you can deal with it – because you can, you absolutely can. This might not feel real for you at first, and that’s okay. Go with it and see what the experience has to give you. This is a learning process and it will take time. Underlying all worry, anxiety and stress is fear that we won’t be able to cope. Fear of failure, for example isn’t fear of the failure but fear that you won’t cope with the failure. Ditto for rejection, making a wrong decision – anything. You will cope. You’ve proven it over and over. See what happens when you move towards trusting that. If it doesn’t feel real, pretend until it does. From the outside it will look the same anyway.
Try: ‘Whatever happens, I will cope. I always have.’
Meet your anxiety where it is, without needing you or it to be different.
It’s paradoxical, but sometimes, the more we try to change something the more energy we give it, and the more it stays the same. (Keep telling yourself not to think of pink gorillas. Try really hard not to think of them. Keep telling yourself to stop thinking of pink gorillas. See how that works?) Anxious thoughts take up a lot of precious head space. They draw on our feelings, focus, thoughts and imagination. The more we try to make sense of them and control them, the more they feed into anxiety. Instead, experiment with being with your anxiety as it is, without needing to change it. Acceptance doesn’t make a feeling stronger or more enduring. It stops giving it energy.
What you focus on is what becomes powerful. The more you focus on something, the more it flourishes and expands.Try to be with your anxiety without pushing against it. Don’t force it to go or to be different than it is. This will let you understand your anxiety more, which will bring it out of the dark and into a space in which you can deal with it.
This isn’t easy, but it’s powerful. Try it in little bits and work up from there. Start with letting your feelings be as they are for two minutes, or however long feels okay for you. Sit with them, without needing them to be different. Then if you want to, after that you can give them your attention and try to turn them into something else. When you can, let them be as they are again. See how this feels, then when you’re ready, work up to longer.
Try: ‘I am having a worried thought. My hands are clammy. My mouth is dry. This is anxiety]. And that’s okay.’
Clear your filter.
Messages and experiences from the past have a way of changing the filter through which we look at the rest of the world. This is the way it works for all of us – anxiety or no anxiety.
Try to approach experiences and moments as though you are experiencing them for the first time. Even if you have been in many similar situations before, none of them will be exactly like this one. Notice the differences between what is and what has been. With every experience, you are changed somehow – wiser, braver, stronger, more capable, sometimes more anxious, more worried, more fearful. Be open to the new possibilities that can come from this new experience, because that’s what it is – a new experience.
For example, if you have had a painful breakup, there might be a tendency to hold back from loving wholeheartedly again. New people and new relationships might feel risky. This is completely understandable, and staying away is a move that will keep you safe, but it will close down the possibilities and promise that are waiting for you to find them. Growth happens when we open ourselves up to ‘what is’, rather than letting new experiences be coloured by ‘what has been’.
Try: ‘This is a brand new experience. I’m open to discovering what will unfold for me here.’
‘This reminds me of all the times I’ve had to meet new people. These people are different. I’m different. This experience is different.’
Surrender. Let go of the need for certainty, even if it’s just for a moment.
The future is always uncertain, so anxiety has a pretty easy time of causing a stir. Not everything will go to plan and that’s okay, but the more we try to control things, the more we tend to realise how little control we have. This will feel uncomfortable at first, so start with surrendering to the uncertainty for a small amount of time. Experiment with letting go of needing to control the moment, the future, the past, or the people around you. The more you are able to lean in to your uncertainty and tolerate it, the less power it will have over you.
Try: ‘I don’t know what will happen if I have to change plans. And that’s okay.’
And finally …
Think of these strategies like drops in a bucket. The first time you try them, you might not notice much. Same with the second time, and the third time. Eventually though, the more you experiment with them and the more you use them, the more capacity you will have to harness the strength of your wild and beautiful mind and make it work more in your favour. You will learn that you will always have what it takes and that anxiety is a feeling that comes and then it will go, just like a bad weather day. You’re a fighter – you’ve been fighting anxiety and winning for a while now. You’re strong, brave and resilient and you have everything you need inside you to deal with anything that might stand in your way.