Does it feel like your anxiety is taking over your life? Would you do anything to get rid of your anxiety? Does it feel like it is some part of you that doesn’t belong?
While it is perfectly natural to want to answer yes to one or all of these questions, be careful. Their wording actually is part of the problem with attempts to cope with anxiety.
Try answering these questions: What is your anxiety? How big is it? What shape is it? What color is it? Where in your body is it?
You might begin to realize that these questions are difficult to answer. That’s because anxiety is not a thing, a being, or an object, and it has no essence. Anxiety actually is a hypothetical construct. If it were a thing, like a tumor, then we could remove it. But you’ve probably noticed by now that it’s not that easy to remove anxiety.
Anxiety really is just a way of speaking about a set of responses, sensations and behaviors occurring in your body. How do you know that you are feeling anxious? You might notice an increase in heart rate, shortness of breath, tightening of the chest, sweating of the hands and palms, and turning of the stomach.
There usually also is a set of thoughts that go along with these sensations. Sometimes the thought comes first, such as when you think about a big presentation you have to give tomorrow. And sometimes the thoughts come after, and in response to the physiological sensations described above. When this happens, you might notice that the problem is not your anxiety, but interpreting those physiological sensations as a problem.
If you are willing to feel those sensations fully, breathing into them, and observing them like a scientist noticing changes in an experiment, then you might realize that anxiety does not actually exist. All you have to do is learn to manage these sensations. What you thought was anxiety (or in this case, a panic attack) doesn’t need to send you to the ER or down a death thought spiral. Panic attacks have never killed anyone nor caused them psychotic breaks.
Back to our example. If the racing thoughts come first, such as about a dreaded presentation, first date, or big social event, then the key is to realize that all of this worrying is about a future event that has not yet happened. Bring yourself back to the present moment and just notice your thoughts by saying to yourself “I’m having the thought that….”
If you’re genuinely worried about a future event for which you can prepare and plan, then do your preparation and be done with it. If you’ve already done all you can do, remind yourself of this and come back to the present moment.
Anxiety is not a thing. We may have thoughts about a future event that is scary to us, which might be perfectly appropriate. Acknowledge the thoughts, do what you can to prepare, and come back to the present moment. If you are experiencing uncomfortable physiological sensations first, then lean into them, get curious about them, and do your best to make room for them. You can name them, notice them, and watch as they increase and decrease in intensity (since you might notice that all of these physiological symptoms will dissipate with time).
Since anxiety is not a real thing, fighting it and trying to get rid of it are impossible and hopeless goals. Instead, change your response to the physiological sensations and thoughts. Change your behavior because that is what is in your control. Approach and accept, don’t avoid and escape.
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