Last updated on July 6, 2020
This year has been difficult for all of us. While I have spoken about struggling with anxiety before, what does that look like? How do I recognize it and then walk away from it? This post is about a few tools I use to diffuse anxiety when it surfaces.
Well, some nights, like last night, it takes hold. Hard. But I have gotten good at separating an immediate situation from an imagined near-future disaster. It feels like your brain is presenting you with a set of documented findings. Harbingers of imminent doom. Which then leads to a series of exercises where you review your estate planning (because it makes sense to do that instead of sleep right?), providing shelter for the pets by transitioning them to someone else’s care (which, yes, I have arranged for already), among other topics that take hours to walk through as you toss and turn all night in bed.
After letting the brain go through all these avenues and remaining a conscious but resolute observer, something that meditation has taught me how to do, I can finally find moments to drift in and out of sleep as the brain thrashes like a big trout on a fishing line until it too is exhausted and gives in to the finality of its course.
The technique I use most? Well, there are two. The first is to visualize my very immediate future and plan on that. For instance, and I used this directly after my heart attack. Go to the kitchen and set out the coffee service. Mine includes a Chemex pot for pour-over so there’s the Chemex, the filter, the beans in the grinder, and the boiling pot to drip into the coffee maker. Then I visualize my morning routine of push-ups, tooth brushing, face washing, and reading the paper on my Kindle.
What this first tool does is to anchor my future. Or at least anchor it before the cliffs my mind keeps telling me we are about to tumble over, via the waterfall, while we drift uncontrollably in raging rapids. It gives me a mental tool to slow the emergency.
The second thing made the first tool even more effective. Mindfulness. The practice of meditation? Most people say “I can’t meditate because I always have 1000’s of thoughts going on and I can’t slow my head down.” I hired a coach one year and she taught me that this is precisely what mediation is. Becoming lost in thought, but just observing and not reacting. Then, once we have a moment, and this moment always comes because even the brain needs a break from its crazy train, we simply have to listen to our breathing once more. Even if that window is a fraction of a second, the very act of meditation lies inside that subtle shift from the brain to breath. The illusion is that it’s a whole hour of focusing on your breath when in fact it’s 99% watching the brain run around in circles like a dog chasing its tail and then 1% watching it stop, pant and be still for a moment or two.
For those who suffer from anxiety and depression, let alone panic attacks, there is no way to stop our physiologies from triggering those switches, but there are ways to diffuse and de-escalate the inner dialogue created by our brains.
I hope that sharing this will help to demystify the experience and, hopefully, provide some tools to those who may need them. Especially in a year where it seems like danger is on every surface, in every handshake and even floating around in the air just waiting to grab hold of us. I still maintain, as I have for years, that fear is a choice. We may not choose to get cancer, heart disease, or Covid-19, and we have little to no control over any of those outcomes because we usually ignore the possibilities or are just sort of genetically destined toward them. Still, that’s the thing, recognizing what we should be afraid of toward taking action, if we can, and then letting go of what we should not waste energy on late at night while being dragged down a raging mental river toward the cliffs.
It’s the Alex Honnold paradigm. Allegedly the fear center of his brain does not work like the rest of ours do. But, I read an interview with him where he states that part of his training is to learn the difference between a real fear of something that will kill you and simple anxiety that will only rob you of good times or sleep.
It should be repeated however, the root problem never really goes away. Also, there is no shame in reaching out for help, as I have, when needed. Friends, family, and co-workers can be of great help when you need some form of anchor and find you can’t throw one on your own. So can professionals who are trained to help you pull yourself out of the river toward the safety of the shore.
We are all in search of a lot of the same things. Happiness, fulfillment, and love being some of the top three. As are lifting others up around us, coaching, and listening toward understanding and sharing. Being present for not only ourselves but for others, can be one of the greatest skills we can hone. Again, everyone is different, what works for me works for me (usually), if these tools don’t help you, there are others. The trick is listening to yourself and finding what you need with no shame.