Embracing Anxiety

Anxiety has been my constant companion since I was a young teen. It is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worry and physical changes like a racing heart. It is a feeling of being in danger, without knowing exactly why. People who experience anxiety tend to have recurring, intrusive thoughts and concerns. They may avoid certain situations or experiences. Anxiety can be debilitating: convincing you that hiding in bed is preferable to facing the outside world.

Over the years, I have learned that being a highly-sensitive person is a super-power. It allows you to see, feel and experience the world around you more deeply and in technicolour. You tend to notice details, make subtle connections, and understand complexity. You also empathize deeply. All of this goodness also lends itself to anxiety. The gift is also the curse.

In order to live at peace with my anxiety, I have cultivated some tactics, and I thought I would share them with you.

Movement

I move my body every day. Whether it be yoga, walking, or a high-intensity strength class, it is essential to regularly sweat and stretch. Movement helps to break the anxiety loop and grounds me in the moment. It connects me to my heart and breath. Whether I want to do it or not, I move every day, often several times a day. It is always worth it.

Nourishment

What you fuel your body with is really important. Over the years, I have given up caffeine, as it makes my heart race and anxiety soar. Sugar is another ingredient to be avoided. Many major diseases that plague us—including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s—are linked to chronic inflammation. My naturopath recommends following a low-inflammation diet as a preventative measure and I have found it to be a very useful approach.

Routine

Creating a daily routine is a way to keep small promises to yourself. When you consistently show up, and follow through on your commitments, you provide yourself with a steady and reliable source of internal support. For some strange reason, I often experience resistance to doing the things that I love the most (exercise, meditation, writing, practising French) but if I scheduled time for the activity, and I follow through, I never ever regret it. Even if it is only for five minutes, it still counts, and it fills me up. The important thing is to be consistent.

Acceptance

Anxiety wants to be in charge. It tries to protect you by imagining every possible scenario: often the most negative and scary. This is futile. The reality is no one knows what is going to happen and it almost never unfolds in the way we think it will. It is important, instead, to sit with the discomfort caused by the unknown and create space for it to just be. Anxiety needs to be thanked for its service and offered appreciation for what it is trying to do, which is keep you safe; but it also needs to be taken out of the driver’s seat, and moved into the back of the bus, where it can relax, look out the window, and enjoy the view.

Support

Aside from all of the personal practices that I have put into place, I am fortunate enough to have a counsellor to support me. The amount of time that I spend with her varies, depending on what is going on in my life, but I am grateful to have her there as a resource. Having a someone to talk to about my anxiety, and a place to access supportive tools, is incredibly helpful.

Privilege

This discussion would not be complete without acknowledging the privilege that I possess to make these choices for myself, and access these resources, as a white middle-class woman. I do not face the trauma, systemic racism and abuse that Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) do each and every day. The anxiety that they face is not even comparable.

Resources

Here are a few resources that I came across and thought worth sharing. The first is a short Instagram video from Mel Robbins. The second is a podcast from Rob Bell, with his wife Kristen, who experiences anxiety. Both women share a thoughtful perspective and some tangible tactics.

Head vs. Heart

Rear View Woman And Split Blackboard With Heart And Brain Symbol

I am a sensitive empath with a strong internal fight or flight instinct. I feel and sense the world around me deeply; this can be challenging when you live in a busy, aggressive and loud world.

In order to better navigate this reality, I am working to build upon my inner strength. To create a place of stillness and grounding that I can turn to when things are chaotic: to cultivate more equanimity and peace within. This starts by learning how to shift from living in my head to living from my heart.

Throughout my adult life, I have gained success and praise through building up my analytical skills. The task-orientated, linear part of my brain is highly developed and it is hard for me to switch it off. It writes lists and organizes things. It reflects on what has happened and plans into the future. It is pragmatic and efficient: seeking security and safety through establishing structure.

There are many benefits to possessing these skills, especially in a world that values productivity and efficiency; but the logical part of myself lacks warmth, spontaneity and joy. It is rigid and uncompromising. This part of myself reminds me of a grouchy old lady. She complains and she is dissatisfied; she is always looking for improvement. She points out what is not going right and what she does not like; she worries about things incessantly. She does not live in the moment or start from a place of gratitude. She suffocates creative, playful impulses: considering them to be “silly” and “unpredictable.”

I have been thinking a lot lately about how I can learn to reconnect with my body: to reclaim the intuitive, emotional part of myself that lives and breathes in the present moment. To do this, I have been investigating embodiment practices. A few of them include:

Internalizing the Positive: In his book, Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson speaks to the negative bias of the brain. The brain preferentially scans for, registers and recalls unpleasant experiences. In order to change this, he suggests actively looking for good news, particularly the little stuff of daily life: the smiling face of your child; the smell of fresh coffee; a pleasant conversation with a friend; a small victory at work.

More importantly, Rick suggests savouring the experience. Be in that moment and really take it in. Do not let you attention move to something else: hold it for up to 20 seconds. The longer something is held in awareness, and the more emotionally stimulating it is, the more neurons fire and write together: creating a stronger trace memory. He also suggests focussing on the feelings of your emotions and body sensations since they are the essence of implicit memory. Let the experience fill the body and be as intense as possible. This helps to teach the brain to focus on and remember the positive in any given situation.

Cold Immersion: Throughout history and across cultures, cold bathing has been used to promote multiple beneficial effects for health such as improving the immune system, cardiovascular circulation and lowering inflammation; it is also shown to boost mood and alleviate symptoms of depression. It is counterintuitive but it is actually a really effective way to start the day. As I stand in that cold blast of water each morning, I am forced to be in my physical self. I am aware of how this amazing body has kept me alive over the last twenty-four hours: breathing each breath; pumping my heart; repairing muscles; creating new skin; moving me through the world. There is no where else to be in that moment. The cold does not allow your attention to wander. I am filled with awareness and gratitude. Before I know it, it is over. I turn on the hot water and start the day with fresh slate. The recommended timing of cold immersion varies from minutes to hours. I can only manage thirty seconds but it is enough.

Movement and Sound: When I was little, I loved to express myself through singing, dancing and making music. As I grew older, I became increasingly self-consciousness and they played a smaller and smaller role in my life. Now that I am in mid-life, I am learning to re-embrace these forms of self-expression to foster a stronger connection with my heart. The wonderful thing is there is no one right way to do it. You just find what works for you and go for it. I have personally been enjoying two mindfulness practices: kirtan and 5Rhythms. With roots in the Vedic anukirtana tradition, a kirtan is a call-and-response style song or chant, set to music. There is little distinction between the performers and the audience.  The wallah (leader) sings the mantra, and the audience sings it back.  A single chant can go on for up to forty minutes.  As you sing with each other you experience a deep connection with the musicians, the other audience members and yourself.  All voices merge together to become one voice. And when the music stops, your mind is quiet. 5Rhythms is a movement meditation practice devised by Gabrielle Roth in the late 1970s. It puts the body in motion in order to still the mind. Fundamental to the practice is the idea that everything is energy, and moves in waves, patterns and rhythms. The five rhythms (in order) are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical and Stillness. When danced in sequence, are known as a “Wave.” A typical Wave takes about an hour to dance.

Finding ways to shift from living in my mind to living in my body is an ongoing practice. There is no set destination or mode of arrival; it is simply a process of constant effort and cultivation.  The techniques listed above are just a few of the ways that I am exploring this concept; but they are not all of them. I also enjoy the benefits of meditation, yoga and walking in nature, amongst others. It is less about the form and more about the intention. How can I move into living more in the present moment? How can I come home to my physical self? How can I learn to feel as much as I think?

I am curious to learn how you are learning to live more from your heart. Please share your thoughts and suggestions below.

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