Our human instinct is to react and push back when we feel pain and discomfort. When we struggle with anxiety, those feelings are magnified. Our inherent response is to try and get rid of unpleasant feelings and sensations immediately. But does it really work?
This is an important question, and ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) teaches that fighting the discomfort can actually make the situation worse. Mental health providers practicing ACT often use the quicksand metaphor, and the reaction we naturally would have if we were ever caught in it. Even though we know it makes matters worse when we panic and try to get out quickly, our survival mechanisms tell us differently.
Trying to get out of quicksand is counterintuitive. The first piece of advice given by outdoor experts is not to panic or make frantic movements. We are taught to slowly wiggle our body until we can lie on our back. Once most of our body is on the surface, we can then try to float and roll ourselves to solid ground.
How we need to respond to anxious moments according to ACT may sound illogical as well. It takes time to understand how to be flexible with our thoughts and the emotional pain that comes with them. Our natural tendency is to react in defense, but perhaps it’s worth a try to look at our anxiety with a different set of eyes.
Think about what would happen if we were to ask a surgeon to remove our brain structures that set the fight-or-flight response in motion. We simply would not live very long. This response is part of who we are as mortal creatures. There is no way we can get rid of it. We need our “alarm system” to survive this menacing universe. However, instead of having to fight snakes, tigers, and mammoths, we fight the stress created by our challenging and busy world. When individuals experience anxiety, their fight-or-flight response is an ongoing reaction in their lives.
Experiencing restlessness, fatigue, muscle tension, heart pounding, and shortness of breath, to name a few symptoms of anxiety, is not something we want to encounter on a regular basis. However, when we resist these sensations, our “alarm system” may detect that it’s not doing its job. It continues to pump blood and stress hormones to defend us from the enemy. When this happens, it certainly can feel like we are in quicksand!
Rather than following your instinctive reaction, consider these two suggestions:
This is easier said than done, but have you noticed what happens when you are feeling high anxiety? Someone may recommend that you relax and take slow deep breaths. You follow their advice, but then your mind may tell you to do it faster. The mind — the amazing problem-solving machine — wants to help you. So it says to you: “The faster you breathe, the faster these feelings and sensations will vanish!” It makes sense doesn’t it? That’s the mind’s job, but you know its warning is backfiring as you begin to hyperventilate and become even more anxious.
Remember, the sensations you feel as anxiety escalates are an indication that your nervous system is functioning well. In fact, it’s working overtime. Instead of trying to get rid of the sensations, note how your wonderful mind acts so quickly to protect you from harm. Gradually scan your body and detect how each part of it is responding. As you do this, remember to observe your thoughts, and slowly refocus.
Take time to breathe in and out even when your ‘thinking engine’ is telling you to do otherwise. Choose an anchor to focus on. For example, simply notice the air coming in and out of your nose. You might want to direct your attention to the temperature of the air as you inhale and exhale, or feel how your abdomen expands and contracts.
Remember, your thought-producing machine will be trying to coach you, and produce thoughts that may not be helpful in the moment. Acknowledge what it says, and gently return to the anchor you’ve chosen.
Choose to look at your body with interest. Watch what happens when you breathe in and out slowly. Curiously examine the results of not reacting to the amazing problem-solving engine as you normally would. Carefully pay attention to small details in things and people around you. Can you clearly distinguish the sounds in the room? Have you ever wondered how your sense of smell functions during a stressful situation? How is your body reacting to the surfaces it is touching during anxious moments?
Ask yourself this question: What happens each time I listen to my mind and try to get out of it frantically? Consider your answer seriously. Try to see anxiety in a different light. Take a chance and be willing to respond differently. Remember that managing anxiety is counterintuitive.
Discover what may happen if you follow professional advice. Outdoor experts have provided the appropriate steps to follow when caught in quicksand. Our thinking machine most likely will want us to follow our innate intuition to get out of it as soon as we can. It will be up to us to follow expert advice, if we ever should need it. So it is with anxiety. Will you follow your survival instincts or the advice from researchers who have studied this disorder and have found what provides lasting results?
There are other steps but start with these and see what happens. It takes practice, time, and patience to master new skills. Remember that learning to manage anxiety is a process. You can choose to slow down and become inquisitive. As you do, you’ll find that you have more time to live a value-focused life instead of an anxiety-focused life.