When I’m worrying about something it can be very difficult to think about anything else. My mind keeps coming back to whatever it is, and if I dare to relax for any time, I experience a sinking feeling as soon as I remember. If I’m worrying most of my mental energy is directed at the anxiety and it is exhausting. It also makes me less patient with others because they distract my focus. Anxiety was the cause of much of my bad tempered parenting when my children were young.
So it’s really hard to be kind to myself and my anxiety when I experience it. I find it frustrating and upsetting, I don’t like myself as an anxious person, I don’t sleep, and I wish I could get rid of it. However, I’ve discovered that one of the keys to handling anxiety is to be self-compassionate and to accept myself, worrywart and all. It helps me to take a step back from the worry and take a wider view of what is going on. I can then accept my anxiety and in accepting it, I often find it dissipates and I can feel cheerful again.
How does this work?
An understanding of the way my brain works is very helpful. From an evolutionary perspective, my human brain is relatively new and as such, is not perfect. Like any animal, I need to react to threat in order to survive. However humans have the capacity to think, to ruminate on events, and it is this that causes me such anxiety.
By thinking and ruminating, all my brain is doing is trying to protect me. That is its job. My brain is designed to think and look after me. Yet by thinking it often extends my sense of threat beyond the time that the threat exists. It presents me with “what if” scenarios that may never materialise. It knocks persistently at the door of my conscious thought and warns me that if I dare to relax something bad will happen. This is my brain in “threat” mode.
When I can take a step back and see that my brain is in an anxious overdrive state, I’m able to relax. I’m able to recognise that the situation – whatever it is – probably does not merit all this attention. My thoughts and feelings about it are my brain trying to look after me. I can wish my brain well but allow myself to switch off from the thoughts. The thoughts will arise, because my brain is designed to think, but there is no need to engage with those thoughts anymore.
Unfortunately the nature of the world and our lives is that we will always experience fear. It is a helpful emotion because it keeps us safe. That charge of adrenaline as a mother instinctively reaches out and grabs her child before they run into the path of an oncoming vehicle is definitely necessary! So it is not the fear that is the problem, it is what we do with it.
In the example of the mother, she may well begin to berate herself and her child for not taking care, and begin to imagine all sorts of dreadful scenarios of the child dying in the road, the emergency services being called, the phone call to the child’s father … This is her brain trying to protect her from future danger. It is perfectly normal. However, it is not helpful if it becomes her main focus hours or days after the event.
Now what is happening is her brain is ruminating. This is what the imperfect human brain does. However, she needs to let go of those anxious thoughts.
Easier said than done! It is a challenging process. It means engaging a different part of the brain to the threat system. The brain's self-soothing system needs to be activated.
What helps to release the brain’s self-soothing ability is to engage in activities that slow it down. One of the most accessible ways to do this is to take some time to breathe slowly, aiming for five slow breaths in a minute. This slows the heart rate down. Body posture can help here too. When someone is under threat they tend to hunch their shoulders and fold inwards to protect their vital organs. Sitting upright and squaring the shoulders can help the body to realize it is no longer under threat. Slow breathing and an upright posture begins a virtuous circle that enables bodies and brains to relax.
At this point our mother may be able to give herself kindness and compassion. As her fearful reactions subside the rational part of her brain can engage. She can recognise that this was a frightening experience but that she avoided an accident. As she comforts herself she is also able to release kindness and compassion towards her child. She will be able to think logically about measures she needs to take to protect her child in the future.
So it is important to recognise that fear will arise for people in all sorts of situations. It is not possible to live in the world and avoid fear. The task then is one of learning how to handle it. Understanding the nature of the brain brings a compassionate approach to the problem of rumination and brings a solution that everyone can try.
I talked about how the anxiety of Christmas shopping taught me more about compassion in my live feed this week. If you're reading this by email you can access the video at www.thegoodenoughmum/blog.