Noticing and learning from anxiety. Recognizing what it is and being with it doesn’t have to feel like an ocean of emotion that is all consuming. Remedy to release? A touch of curiosity and willingness to hear what it wants may do the Trick.
I recently experienced a wave of anxiety, quite unexpectedly. It didn’t last long, but it was long enough for me to notice it. There was a moment when I wondered if the wave would turn into another wave and another and another, but a stroke of inspiration came instead.
Here’s what the feeling of anxiety taught me.
I was at a business meeting and all of sudden, out or nowhere, I started to feel “off”, my stomach felt tight, my body didn’t feel easy, I felt uncomfortable, as if something was going to happen. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but to me I recognized the characteristics of how my body feels when I’m anxious. I carried on regardless (how British I hear you say!) “Ignore it, continue the conversations and just move through it. It’ll pass.” I thought to myself.
It was strange to me as I was in the most beautiful of offices, with amazing people who I value, respect, and enjoy being with, yet here I was having a 10 minute-or-so bout of anxiety.
The easy response was to ignore it, brush it off and not think any more of it. Except if I’m honest with myself perhaps a quiet thought was in the back of mind saying, “I really hope this doesn’t happen again because I’m not loving this feeling.” Mostly because I don’t know where it’s coming from, what’s triggering it, and I feel out of balance.
However, the following morning as I was getting ready for the day the situation returned to my thoughts and I wondered why I had felt anxious. So, using that as a lead I decided to reinvestigate the emotion and see if I could learn more about why I felt anxious.
Given your body doesn’t know the difference between you actually experiencing something or just thinking about something, I used this to my advantage.
I went and sat quietly in my favorite spot at home, I closed my eyes, mustered up some courage and began imagining the situation again to put myself (in my mind) back into it once more where I noticed I felt anxious.
Presto! It worked, immediately I could feel my body begin to tense, butterflies went off in my stomach, my breathing was shallower, an increasing heat seemed to come across my body, and I felt anxious. Now what? Keep in your awareness that while I’m doing this I am sat at home, in my haven, my restful, wonderful space, and yet I’m experiencing anxiety. Your body is so powerful! Talk about mind over matter… let’s rephrase that to body over mind. My mind recreates the scenario, and my body responds, or is my body actually recreating the experience and my mind is responding? My mind now believes, because of my body sensations that I am back in the same situation. Aside from the experiment it’s utterly fascinating what is happening.
So then, how do I start uncovering what’s behind this anxiety? I said to myself “Anxiety, Thank you for showing up, thank you for coming to my attention. What do you want me to know? What would you like to share with me?” I felt some resistance... “It’s ok” I reassured myself and sat waiting while I continued to feel anxious. It felt like hours went by, nothing seem to occur to me and meanwhile I’m thinking “Well this isn’t going to work, you better wrap this up and get on with work, you’ve got stuff to do.” However something in me persisted, so I sat patiently, and waited.
I gently said to myself “I’m listening and I’m here, it’s safe for you to share with me. What would you like me to know?”
And very gently and somewhat tentatively, yet amazingly, I found myself with thoughts popping up about how I had underlying fears about the situation I was in, not directly, but associated ideas. It wasn’t the actual office or the people, or even what we were discussing. It was rooted in an associated experience I’d had before and I was somehow subconsciously being reminded of it. Anxiety triggered because my body interpreted there was no other alternative to what I was experiencing and my mind considered the possibility of going back down that path. The anxiety rolled in, and underneath it my body was reminded of what occurred before, and began anticipating a future scenario that might repeat. In that past situation I felt stuck and boxed in and my body wanted to remind me that we did not thrive and we absolutely do not want to return to that. My mind considered there was only one way forward and it felt so out of alignment to me and who I am. To help me remember, and protect me (or so my body is believing) the adrenalin kicked in and along came anxiety, with one mission - to get my attention.
Instead of shutting off the feeling, pushing it down or away I gently asked “Is it true that there is no alternative? or is it just that you have not experienced an alternative and are having a hard time imagining there is a different way? Is it possible, might you be willing to consider that perhaps, just maybe, there could be a second, third, or even fourth way?” My body softened and thoughts came in with a sense of relief that “Actually, there might be another way and just because I hadn’t experienced it, it didn’t necessarily mean that this was the only way, and I would be open to seeing and experiencing another way.”
And with that, I kid you not, the anxiety I felt just melted away.
Anxiety did its job, it got my attention, I asked it what it wanted to share; it shared, I acknowledged and asked some questions, and then it released.
What this profoundly taught me in a very real way, is that our emotions, of the many we all feel, only ever come up to get our attention and to communicate something. My sense is that the hardest part for us individually is learning how to speak our own, and very personal, language. Learning what our own emotions are trying to communicate with us and finding ways of understanding and translating them perhaps is a life long commitment, but a worthy cause.
How do I apply it?
I’ll keep doing this, and the first step is in noticing. Through this experience it became clear that you don’t need to acknowledge the emotion in the moment to understand it straight away. As I discovered, you can go back and recreate the emotion at a later time to help understand what it’s bringing up.
This works beautifully in a planning or preparing mode for something - anything really. Throughout my career I have crafted, written and delivered hundreds of presentations, I can tell you that it wasn’t until about 7 years ago that I started really practicing the delivery of presentations (verbally and with body language). It was only about 3 years ago that I started practicing feeling the emotions I wanted to feel when I was in a presentation.
Many of us, pour over content, facts, figures, stories and find ways to perfect content to within a millimeter of precision.
Some of us, practice presenting and working on the delivery of that content.
Very few of us, practice how we want to feel when we are in meetings, presenting, or in any given situation.
This week reminded me that not only can I take myself back to an emotion I felt, but I can leap myself forward into a future situation and practice and cultivate how I want to I feel, and I can learn about what my emotions want to communicate with me - even during that practice session.
I was reminded how I have the ability to release emotions without them gripping on or digging in. I just have to be willing to be curious enough to ask myself questions about why, and be patient with myself.
Here’s the added bonus, as I reflected on the anxiety and learned why it had come up, the entire process took me 20 minutes. That’s it. As a result of being willing to get curious, be still for a little, and be brave, I gave myself a new tool, the next time I notice those anxious feelings with a similar set of circumstances, I don’t need to worry. I can apply what I’ve learned this time round, or I can just ask myself more questions to see if something else is coming up. I might even do it on the fly! I don’t expect that every answer and processing of a given emotion will always happen in 20 minutes, it could be quicker, it could be longer - days, weeks, months, years perhaps, but I do recognize that in time I can get some profound clarity.
My wish for you? That as you experience emotions day in, day out, for the ones you find the toughest and hardest to understand, that you might now have a technique to try and experiment with. One that helps you understand why you’re feeling what your feeling, and instead of it creating discomfort on some level you explore how to learn from it, release it, and more over have compassion for yourself as you’re experiencing it.
Your emotions are just trying to help you out and are communicating with you in the only way they know how. They are 100% on your side, are your most trusted ally, and only want the absolute best for you. They’re worth getting to know.
If you find yourself really struggling, please consider finding professional help and support. Sometimes in life things can be too intense and too much for us to cope with on our own. Receiving professional help is available where licensed practitioners, medical professionals and specialists are there to help you. Birch Cove is not a licensed practitioner or medical service, the content shared is from observational or personal experiences we have been through. We wish you well, with compassion, on your journey.