“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”
Michel de Montaigne
You know how when you’re anxious, there are certain thoughts that feel really real? And obviously, you have to engage them because to think of anything else would be irresponsible. You have to figure this out!! And you have to find every possible solution to every possibility so that you can either prevent it or mitigate the damages.
You have a weird rash so, you go online, and after reading some stuff, you’ve decided it’s indicative of some terrible health condition. Or you’re thinking about a loved one, and suddenly you’re convinced that the person will die. Or it’s 2:30 in the morning and you’re awake (either because you haven’t fallen to sleep yet or because something woke you up) and you start thinking about your financial situation, the 500 things you have to do tomorrow, and how you never get enough sleep. Or you’re enjoying yourself, and you’re feeling good, but then you think, “I’m so happy right now. What if this all goes away? I’d be devastated.”
I know I don’t have to tell you that there are limitless scenarios. 90% of it runs through your mind. We’re usually anxiously replaying something that has already happened or anxiously thinking about something that hasn’t.
I’m a big believer in feelings as guides, but sometimes we feel less guided by them and more overwhelmed. They can’t guide us as effectively when we are in a state of overwhelm. Sometimes what we need is to get some space from the intensity, to get some sleep, and to face it with a fresher perspective. (And then sometimes it’s not even trying to guide us. Sometimes it’s just anxiety being anxiety, and it needs us to nip it in the bud.)
So, try these evidence-based practices:
- Move from what if-ing/ future-tripping/freaking out to presentifying yourself:
Notice that you’re dwelling or what if-ing the situation to death and pause. Bring your attention to what’s happening now. Some Cognitive and Dialectical Behavioral Therapists call this practice “going from What If to What Is.” Let’s say I’m thinking about an upcoming out-of-state move. I start making a list of what I have to take care of before I move. Then I start thinking of all the different bureaucracies I have to deal with to accomplish my task list. Pretty quickly after that, I’m freaking out about how much there is to do and what if I can’t get it all done and about how bureaucracy makes me crazy and then I’m overwhelmed and spinning. I’ll bring myself out of my unproductive spinning by asking myself, “What is happening right now?” In that moment of right now, I am sitting at the table making a to-do list. Your future self can’t be productive because it doesn’t exist yet. Your present self does. Focus on what you know is happening right now.
- Mindfulness in the present moment:
This is similar to what’s practiced in #1, but it’s slower and more involved. You’ll bring your attention to your senses, one-by-one. Notice how you’re sitting or standing, how it feels, what muscles are tense and which are relaxed. If you want to try progressive muscle relaxation, you can go here for a helpful guide. Notice what you see around you, what it looks like. Notice how you might describe what you see. Observe what you hear, what you feel, what you smell and how you might describe these observations. Mindfulness slows us down and helps us to stay present.
- Exercise self-compassion:
Sometimes (most times) what we need to help us calm our anxious little brains is a little self-compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff, renowned self-compassion researcher, has prescribed these questions to help us get in touch with our compassion as we reflect on our experience.
“What am I observing?
“What am I feeling?”
“What am I needing right now?”
“Do I have a request of myself or someone else?”
Self-compassion/compassion is proven to be the best resource available to the human brain in times of struggle, anxiety, sadness/depression, anger, frustration, guilt, and shame.
- Square breathing:
Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds. Repeat 4x. Reevaluate and do it again if you need to. Square breathing helps to engage our parasympathetic nervous system (also known as our “rest and digest system”) which is responsible for slowing down our movement and thought.
- Take a moment of gratitude:
Say to yourself, “I’m so grateful for this moment.” This helps us pull ourselves out of the anxiety spins and is another way for us to be present. It is especially helpful when we are thinking about something that makes us feel happy or content only to have fear hijack our thoughts and start to dread the inevitable dissolution of that happiness. We’ve all felt it. “I’m really enjoying my family.” “My life is going so well.” “I don’t want this vacation to end.” “I have never been so happy.” The truth is, we won’t always be the same level of happiness or content for the rest of our lives. But we can’t prepare for how and when things will change. We don’t have to obsess over it. Whenever we notice that familiar dread moving in, we can pause that thought and think, “I’m so grateful for this moment.” Each time a dread thought makes its way in, redirect your thinking back to the gratitude you were feeling just a moment ago. “I’m so grateful for this moment.”
Try this short, powerful list of practices the next time you’re feeling plagued by the anxiety loop. See what works best for you.
Love and Be Loved,