I was a very shy girl when I was young. I remember times when I was filled with great fear, like the time my mom wanted me to have a ‘fun’ day trip with a bunch of other kids my age (I ended up having a meltdown and did not go). Or like the times my school would go on week-long field trips and I would be around so many others for many days, feeling completely out of my element. Or the many school dances where I so desperately wanted to dance with my latest crush-victim but was too afraid to even talk to him.
There was great self-judgement for a long time about not being more of an extrovert, not fitting in better, not saying what was really on my mind, and not having a thicker skin. Now I have learned to appreciate the strengths I do have; of being sensitive enough to feel what is going on in a room, sometimes even before walking into the room. Or, having developed compassion for others who are in pain, having anxiety, depression, or otherwise suffering in their lives. Or, having developed a powerful intuitive awareness.
(Building self-esteem gradually over many years also enabled me to speak up when I felt I needed to, and to manage criticism, pain, and other challenges with much more loving compassion, than I used to be able to).
I mention these personal stories to let you know that you are not alone if you suffer from anxiety, debilitating shyness, depression, or other typical challenges of a sensitive person. And although I no longer tend to hold onto the persona of being the shy anxious one, there was a time when it had me. I thought that I was those things, and I didn’t know how to manage those parts of me that I did not like. It made for what felt like a long and difficult childhood (even though by many standards I had a typical and decent childhood with loving parents).
When it came to coping with these insecurities, and anxiety, I had some favorite strategies. As a teen I drank and partied a lot, just to deal with the social anxiety and to feel more comfortable when out with others. As an adult, I used to fight the feelings of anxiety, distract myself with food, movies, or create an overly busy schedule (so that I unconsciously didn’t have to connect with others). I made poor choices in partners which further enabled the stories I had about myself as anxious, and dis-empowered.
Unfortunately those strategies did not help me to change the way that I managed what I now might label as consistent, mild anxiety and depression.
Luckily I met an incredible mentor in my early thirties, and learned a great deal about how to cope in healthier ways. I worked with that mentor for 16 years, and learned a lot about meditation, eating well, self-care tools (and what self-care is), and basic healthy life skills.
My work now is all about helping others to manage anxiety, depression, life, in healthier, more relaxed ways. Helping others find ways to develop self-compassion, coupled with daily self-care tools are at the core of my strategies for helping others.
Let’s first go into some of the typical ways that people try to manage anxiety, and then we’ll look at two powerful methods to greatly reduce anxiety (and other powerful emotions).
Three common ways that people deal with anxiety
Unfortunately these are coping mechanisms that actually escalate the fear or anxiety response, which often make it bigger than it needs to become. They also tend to perpetuate it longer than it needs to be perpetuated. (The good news about this is that anxiety and the fear response can be un-learned and, when they pop up from time to time, managed fairly easily).
The three main coping mechanisms are:
1. Distracting yourself: Trying to distract yourself from anxiety will not alleviate the feeling of anxiety, as much as it may take your mind off of it, albeit temporarily. This unfortunately does more to perpetuate the anxiety than it does to get rid of it. This is like trying not to think about a pink elephant. Given that a part of the mind has to think about it to try and keep it out of the mind, it means you are actually thinking about the pink elephant (or anxiety) more. There have been many studies done to confirm that this is the case, that the more subjects were told not to think about a particular subject, the more they actually thought about that subject, which tells us that this is not a healthy long-term coping strategy when dealing with anxiety.
2. Fighting it: Fighting anxiety will actually make the anxiety itself stronger and more resilient. Have you ever gotten into an argument with a loved one around a ‘touchy subject’. The more you get into the argument, the harder you each dug your heels in. Unless one of you is able to drop it and stop fighting about it, and allow the other to have their point of view without trying to change it in the other, then this fight will get bigger and stronger over time to the point where typically you become polarized over the issue. (Unless you have a conscious skilled discussion where you may agree to have different opinions, but you cannot do that with anxiety unfortunately. Anxiety is not another person that you can agree to disagree with). The more you wish it away, hate the feelings it creates in your body and mind, fear it, and generally fight with it, the more it will rule your life.
3. Trying to escape or avoid it: Escaping or avoiding situations to try and steer clear of anxiety will unfortunately make your world very small, and your comfort zone even smaller. As you age, you will become less and less comfortable with anything that deviates from what feels good, cozy, safe and comfy. This never works in the long run, and is often the reason why some people become agoraphobic and cannot leave their homes.
What can you do to alleviate anxiety?
So if you cannot escape it, nor distract yourself from it, or fight it, what can you do to lessen anxiety in your life?
Try body scanning:
Body scanning is a simple, albeit sometimes brave tool (brave only because it can feel scary to willingly feel anxiety, fear, or other unpleasant feelings or sensations), that will help you to understand what your body needs and does not need, to thrive. Because the body stores information, it tells us when we are being true to ourselves or not. Body scanning can also help you to use physical sensations to manage anxiety more readily.
So for example, if you subconsciously believe you should be afraid, or anxious in a certain situation, your muscles may feel tense whenever you put yourself into that situation (or even think about being in that situation). If the anxiety response increases, you may become dizzy, have heart palpitations, feel weak in the legs, light headed, or any other myriad of symptoms.
Body scanning allows you to simply label the sensations that you are experiencing, without any judgement of those sensations or feelings.
The more you can allow anxiety to be present, without judging it or labeling it as bad, while remaining completely present to any accompanying physical sensations, the more neutral it will start to feel, and the less power it will have over you.
(Of course I am not suggesting that you should not get checked by your doctor if you have consistent sensations that may be linked to physical illness. You would be prudent to do this as part of your overall self-care routine.)
How to do a body scan:
The first few times you do this simple exercise, find a place that is quiet where you feel safe and comfortable.
Start with one long deep breath, and a deliberate gentle smile (smiling reminds your body it is ok to relax), and then acknowledge to yourself what you are feeling physically. I feel light headed. Then take another deep breath with a gentle smile, and acknowledge the next sensation. I feel weak in the legs.
Continue smiling and taking a deep breath before you acknowledge the next sensation that you are feeling. You can start at the feet and scan up to the head and back down to the feet, breathing deeply between sensations.
You can do this simple body scanning exercise initially for 2 minutes, and work your way up to 5, 10, 20 or 30 minutes. Once it becomes easier and more habitual to do, you can do it sitting at your desk, on the train on the way to work, or out and about. Just a simple checking in with the body to see what it is telling you, with no story, label, or judgement.
Be mindful of any stories that you are creating:
This brings me to my next strategy, which is excellent to combine with body scanning.
Notice yourself creating stories like ‘I should not have this anxiety’, or ‘I must have anxiety because something is terribly wrong with me’ (or any other story around it). There may be real reasons for anxiety, and occasionally (if you only get it very occasionally), it may be a message for you to listen to get out of a potentially dangerous situation, or that something needs attention.
But this is not the type of anxiety I am referring to. The type I am referring to is something that you are likely challenged with consistently, and is usually unrelated to any particular outside situation. (It may have initially arisen due to an outside situation, but has remained way past any potential danger to you).
There is an old saying that goes something like ‘if you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are correct.’ The same is true of anxiety. You will often you make up stories for why you are feeling anxious (or why you should be if you are not/ why you should not be if you are), rather than simply labeling what you are currently feeling.
By creating stories around anxiety you often further amplify the feeling of anxiety (or other unpleasant sensation). Whereas, if you could sit with the facts, then it will begin to help you to identify anxiety without making it bigger or further attaching to it. It is simply there, with no story of past, or future. It may come or go, but you are simply observing and reporting the facts to yourself. ‘I feel anxious right now.’
By not creating stories around uncomfortable sensations like anxiety, you will begin to notice that they have less of a hold over you. This is particularly helpful if you can pair this exercise with the body scan exercise. Over time you will find that you can manage the more intense emotions with more neutrality, which will enable them to pass much more quickly. Eventually they may also become less intense each time.
You will always be human, which means that you will always have emotions, thoughts, feelings, and sensations. The challenge I give to you is to begin to learn to allow those sensations without creating stories about them. If you can begin to do these simple (yet sometimes difficult) exercises, your life will feel infinitely more manageable. It will take time to master this practice, but isn’t it worth it if you can begin to manage anxiety and other sensations with more ease and less dread?
May you feel empowered each and every day, knowing that you are much more vast than any emotions or sensations you may feel. Remember they are fleeting, and will always pass.
P.S. I’d love to hear if you have any comments about this blog. Just post below and I look forward to reading.