[This DrP article was first published on MindBodyGreen]
The relief from feeling significantly more in control after a particularly anxious chapter is oh-so-sweet. And we all hope that we never feel that kind of anxiety again.
But what if a new episode in your life reintroduces those same feelings? A racing tornado of a mind, fast heartbeat and clammy palms, and hypervigilantly looking out for how dangerous the world might be, even if the probability is low.
Truth is, the world is full of triggers, and to be human is to have periods of feeling anxious or uncertain.
If you’re having an anxiety relapse, here are a few possible things that might be going on:
Life is harder at the moment.
Then naturally, you are expending a lot of mental and physical energy. Or perhaps there is a big move or decision for a new chapter in your life. Similar to how long vehicles need a lot more time and space before making a turn, some things in life require respect and thinking.
In other words, if you are not feeling stress and/or excitement (and your body cannot tell the difference between these!) at these changes and uncertainties, that is not how a human is designed. Often, what happens is clients come to me pissed off with themselves for feeling something. And I tell them that the only times you are not feeling a thing at all is if you’re so depressed you’re numb, or you’re dead.
It’s healthy to acknowledge that there are some things in life that floor you or affect you more than others; that’s simply being aware of when to protect and recharge your energy more. We all have our own Achilles’ heels, even if your friend doesn’t seem to sweat that same thing. Similarly, it’s wise to respect that if you have a lot of responsibilities, and your decisions affect many others’ lives, then of course you will be thinking more.
Life will have its waves of good, tougher, and OK times; know that if you ride this challenging time out, this will come to pass too.
You’re judging the source of your anxiety.
A question I always ask is, “What is the thing that preoccupies your head most of the time?”
And the answer I always get is, "It sounds so stupid" or "It is so small." Often, because they deem it to be so trivial compared to other people in more dire situations, people judge what they ruminate on.
Actually, that's great news.
If it’s trivial, then it’s easier to execute. Maybe it’s a script to write so you are comfortable voicing it. Maybe it’s a privilege that you have, and so you have less or no material issues to worry about, that would stand in the way of your anxiety trigger.
Judging causes shame. And shame can consume us.
Your body is uncomfortable.
When I have a headache or neck pain, I cannot think straight. When I have a fever, it takes me effort to even walk properly; I have to be incredibly cognizant of every step I take.
Your physical state either feeds your energy level or obliterates it. And that has to be respected.
So some things to consider include:
- Are you having any particularly challenging sudden or chronic aches and pains?
- Is there any underlying health condition that causes you to worry?
- Are you eating enough and drinking enough water? Have you taken something you are allergic/intolerant to or that has caused dehydration or general discomfort?
- Have you used the bathroom enough, or did you forget to do that? (Note: Overthinkers and people with ADHD often forget to do this.) Are you holding in any burps or yawns? Have you stretched your body generally?
- Are you naturally depleted by crowds or overstimulating environments and haven’t had enough me-time so far? (Note: Introvert hangovers are a thing.)
You’re avoiding processing trauma.
As a young psychologist, one of the first lessons I learned was how some of us deliberately choose to worry, in order to avoid flashbacks and intrusive memories stemming from trauma.
The Cognitive Avoidance Model by Borkovec proposes that because worrying is verbally based, when we worry, we interrupt the brain pathways that bring up vivid mental images and that cause emotional and bodily distress. This makes us likelier to want to worry, for fear of facing much more distressing mental images.
As time goes by, we believe that worrying is useful because it protects us. And we eventually would rather worry than experience flashbacks and intrusive memories.
That doesn’t mean it’s a zero-sum game. What you can do for both your worrying and trauma symptoms is keep resetting your brain by acknowledging what you’re feeling emotionally and in your body, taking three deep breaths, and reassuring yourself with a statement like, “Even though I feel unsafe/scared/anxious, I choose to take care of myself right now.” This cuts off the amygdala (your brain’s fear center) that’s hijacking your wiser self and activates your vagus nerve, which supports your healing.
If you have time to go to the bathroom, pick up your phone, or take a swig of water, then you have time for three simple breaths.
Your lack of anxiety was circumstantial.
Perhaps you didn’t heal from the past anxiety, but it got better because life got better. And before you judge yourself, that is OK. You could use this episode to pick up the skills to master your anxiety.
And that is all that needs to be said.
You’re having mixed emotions.
In her book Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, psychologist Lindsay Gibson says that “The ability to feel mixed emotions is a sign of maturity. If people can blend contradictory emotions together, such as happiness with guilt, or anger with love, it shows that they can encompass life’s emotional complexity. Experienced together, opposing feelings tame each other. Once people develop the ability to feel different emotions at the same time, the world ripens into something richer and deeper.”
Quite often, I meet clients who are thrown by the fact that they have mixed feelings. For instance, if they feel both love and hate, it means it can’t be real love. Or if they feel anxious and excited, it is a bad thing.
Part of the art of being human is knowing that you will have mixed emotions. They are never straightforward or purely just one thing.
And a big part of the relief for my clients is knowing this. When they drop the judgment, they have taken significant strides ahead because they reclaim confidence in themselves and reclaim energy they'd otherwise incinerate.
Your tolerance for chronic stressors is lower.
You might have been able to sit with huge chronic stressors, tolerate disrespectful treatment, or tolerate less comfortable lifestyle choices previously.
And looking at yourself now, you cringe at how you don’t stomach these anymore. Deep inside you, you wonder if you’ve gone soft and what’s wrong with you.
First, our bodies are very good at tolerating stressors by functioning on adrenaline, but when we eventually crash (such as on the first day of vacation or when falling sick), it is epic. You don’t want to keep yo-yoing between crashing and burning; it’s wiser and healthier to respect your body and brain as much as you can every day.
Second, perhaps you haven’t gone soft. Rather, you are at a different space in your life, and you are a different person, and you no longer need to tolerate crap.
I think that’s a cause for celebration.
Personally, I’ve lived through the existential question of “have I gone soft?” so I intimately know where you come from. I invite you to consider the ways you’ve evolved and gotten stronger. Look at that balance sheet. Be very proud of yourself.
You’re fundamentally an overthinker.
One of the biggest myths for a person who is Type A, has a life with big responsibilities, or simply thinks a lot, is that if they master their anxiety, they will be all Zen and chilled.
Unless you have a personality transplant or an alien possesses you, that will never happen.
If your brain likes to overthink, then put its ability to splice, analyze, and strategize to fabulous use. Whether or not you are a big picture, details, or an in-between kind of person, that works.
To be artisanal means that with everybody’s limited reserves of energy, you have to choose where you’d like to be a perfectionist or have high standards. I invite you to consider which one or two areas of your life you’d like to become artisanal in. That’s where you’d pay more attention and love.
And for most other things, commit to being Good Enough. Perhaps you could even define those rules, like “I will reread an email twice instead of five times.”
Distractions no longer work.
For instance, new research shows that when we exercise to escape ourselves, that leads to dependence and, ultimately, lowered mental well-being. Things like moving, deep breathing, retreats, and resting are still useful, but fundamentally, see them as hitting the reset button, following which you engage in either strategic planning or wise action to change your situation or grow new habits and brain pathways.
There is a difference between taking care of yourself and suppressing how you are feeling. Acknowledging that things are not good—instead of doggedly chanting mantras like “I am not scared” when you feel the exact opposite—means you reclaim dominion over the situation.
And then, know that self-care isn’t meant to be engaged in only in response to difficult situations. Self-care isn’t just unicorn lattes, a new candle, or bubble baths. Self-care really is about the unsexy, un-Instagrammable fundamentals in your life. Making sure you eat, drink, move, and sleep healthily. Having healthy relationships with others and yourself. Taking care of your mind and cognitive energy. And, having healthy finances.
You have unrealistic expectations.
Sometimes, we think that a miracle will happen and our anxiety will spontaneously disappear.
Confession: Sometimes I read about how illnesses and even myopia are cured by some miracle, and I fantasize about how lovely it’d be to suddenly have perfect vision naturally. It is tempting.
The thing is, your life conditions (e.g., finances, health, relationships) that exacerbate your anxiety might change for the better. But your brain, which has become so used to worrying, will not automatically become languid. Put simply, your anxiety muscles would likely be huge, the more you’ve fed them.
The idea here is that your calm, wise brain muscles must be grown, nurtured, and practiced.
One way you can take care of your brain is to run your anxiety through these filters:
- Is this solvable?
- Is this controllable?
- Is this relevant?
Some issues don’t have a solution, or not yet. And some are beyond your control, such as how some clients start worrying about what happens if their pipes burst or if they get mugged because they’ve watched some show or are hooked on crime shows. Otherwise, worrying about animals they cannot help or the victims of war and natural disasters.
You feed your anxiety.
One of my biggest lessons from the late Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn is the concept of suffering better.
Suffering is inevitable in life, but we can choose to suffer better. In other words, what are we doing that makes our suffering worse?
For instance, it may feel good beating yourself up because you're used to it, but in the long run, you're growing the muscles of shame and guilt. Instead of getting upset at yourself for skipping the gym today, you can choose to enjoy and make good use of the time you've gotten back, and then commit to meeting your fitness goals the next day.
Or if I am worried about finances, I can choose to make purchases based on how they align with my values, instead of engaging in the all-too-tempting, screw-it-let’s-just-YOLO purchasing of things I don’t even like but use to self-soothe.
Similarly, we can choose our thoughts. Just because we are feeling anxious at a particular moment doesn’t mean we have to indulge in those thoughts. We can acknowledge how we feel now, take care of ourselves, and choose the next thoughts we want to entertain.
Think of these as a way of upleveling your mastery of anxiety—because life will always happen.
But importantly, remember you are not back at square one. Let’s help you activate the muscle memory and make these difficult chapters pay dividends for your future.
If you’d like to unwire these old anxiety patterns and be in-control via a signature 8-week program that’s tailored to you, book your free Chemistry Call here.