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Are you curious about your anxiety?

Let's be honest.  Anxiety sucks.  It throws us into a spiral of thoughts, feelings and sensations that often create misery.  This distress is not reserved for just a few - it is a part of our human existence.  We all experience it.  Some of us more than others.  I'm one of the lucky ones who is on the "more" end of the spectrum.  Yay!  I didn't know I struggled with anxiety until I was in grad school and a dear friend (who was also getting her MA in psychology) helped me name it.  She said "everyone has their suffering Jen, and anxiety is yours".  This statement had a profound impact on my life for many reasons.  Sometimes a friend is your best therapist!

I have since spent the last 2 decades getting to know anxiety.  It's pretty safe to say that we know each other real well!  I consider myself an "evolving expert" (because I don't think you ever know it all) on anxiety and resilience, both personally and professionally.  This by no way means my life is all sunshine and rainbows - by contrast it means I have come to accept the messiness of being human and the beauty of possibility.  Over the years my  relationship with anxiety has transformed.  We still have an intense tango every now and then - sometimes I'm the one leading the dance, other times I'm the one getting pulled around.  However, I, perhaps like you, have learned that how we relate and cope with anxiety makes the ultimate difference.  Today I specialize in teaching others how to manage their anxiety and how to flourish in their suffering.  It's a total joy.

On top of anxiety sucking, anxiety isn't going away.  It's evolutionary because it's rooted in fear - and fear is here to stay.  Fear serves an adaptive survival purpose - it alerts us to danger, makes us pause or creates action.  Anxiety, the worry that is born out of fear and uncertainty, serves very little purpose and is maladaptive.  In fact, according to Brown University's renowned Addiction Psychiatrist and Neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer, "anxiety is in and of itself a harmful habit". 

Modern day science has gifted us a greater understanding of anxiety and how it affects the brain and the systems of the body.  In short, when anxiety is activated in our primitive survival brain, our "newer" brain, the Prefrontal Cortex (which is responsible for logic and reasoning) isn't getting enough information to accurately predict the future - hence your spinning mind.  We quickly then begin to overestimate danger/threat and underestimate our resources.  Anxiety also removes us from the present moment experience because the worrying wandering mind is perseverating on something that happened or could happen.  Our minds get stuck in a mindless auto-pilot where we are not grounded in what is real and true - and this can become our default (we even have a region in our brain called the  Default Mode Network).  Without mindfulness, insight and functional coping skills, anxiety can become an endless cycle of distress. 

What I love most from the research is our understanding that the body and movement are critical to how anxiety is activated, experienced and tamed.  As a culture and society we are well trained to ignore our body, to dismiss it's signals and value the head over the core. However, according to stellar neuroscience we know that the brain looks to the body to know how to feel, not the other way around.  Anxiety begins with a sensation in the body before it ever becomes a thought.  In the training I do with clients, we work to unlearn and relearn using life experiences as our mental gym.  And since the body and mind are interconnected, part of this relearning process is learning to include your body and explore movement as a way to become more whole and integrated.  When it comes to working with anxiety and the body, the secret special sauce is...curiosity.

Curiosity is probably the character strength I value most.  So much of life narrows and constricts us (in body and mind).  Curiosity does the opposite - it is open and expansive.  It invites wonder and possibility.  It is naturally mindful and accepting of uncertainty.  It requires little effort and is intrinsically rewarding.  Many anxiety experts agree that cognitive therapies alone are not enough to tame anxiety.  We can't simply think our way out of anxiety.  Dr.Luana Marques, Harvard Professor of Psychiatry and President of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, emphasizes that it is our relationship to anxiety that is the greatest problem. It is when we bring curiosity to our body's experience of anxiety that we really learn to live with and through anxiety.  

Avoidance is a natural byproduct of anxiety.  It's easier and (temporarily) feels better.  It may feel counter intuitive (at first); however I encourage you to move towards your anxiety.  Get to know it, sense it, feel it, investigate it - in your embodied experience.  Trust me, I know that simply this suggestion may create anxiety, but it won't hurt you to do this.  It may feel uncomfortable (at first), but consider that it may actually be the comfort with the avoidance that has you trapped in an anxious loop.  Here are a few examples of how to bring curiosity to anxiety.
The next time you feel anxious, pause. 

Give yourself permission to put your spinning mind on hold - it can wait.  Get curious about what you are feeling in your body in the moment.  Sometimes it is helpful to close your eyes and put a hand on your chest and/or a hand on your belly to help you tune into the physical body.  Bring out an imaginary magnifying glass and investigate the sensations.  Ask yourself questions like:
  • Do I sense this feeling more on the left side of my body or my right?
  • Is it more in my front body or back?  Upper or lower?
  • What would I name this sensation?
  • Does it feel open or closed?  Subtle or intense?
  • Do I feel an urge to move?
Then give yourself a mindful moment with one of these practices:
  • Take three deep slow breaths imagining that you are breathing into that space in your body that holds the sensation
  • Bring attention to your feet on the ground, sense you're connected to something steady and stable
  • Trace your fingers on one hand and inhale to a count of 6 as you trace up each finger and exhale a count of 6 while you trace down each finger (this equals one minute of mindful breathing)
  • Close your eyes and become aware of sound for 30 seconds.  Don't go looking for the sound, but let it come into your field of awareness
That's it.  Start there.  Every time you feel anxious, try it again.  Notice what happens.
Anxiety throws us into action mode.  We have an overwhelming desire to fix it, control it, do something.  Curiosity is an antidote to the impulse of anxiety.  It here, don't go anywhere.  A mindful meditation or a contemplative practice (like prayer) is another powerful way to cope with anxiety and improve your overall well-being. 

In a mindfulness practice we are not trying to change our thoughts and feelings, instead mindfulness is about changing our relationship to our thoughts and emotions.  A practice of prayer puts us in a place of surrender, connection and hope where we relinquish the worries and assumption that it's all up to us with a "foundational belief in a a world that is still and always unfolding to something better" (Richard Rohr).
  In the wisdom of my late father, "may you always lay your burdens at the feet of Jesus".

Stay tuned for my upcoming Resilience classes and events coming this fall where you will have the opportunity to move your body and your mind to experience a more integrated and healthy self.
Recommended resources:
 Unwinding Anxiety App
Ten Percent Happier App - Taming Anxiety Challenge
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
How to Cope with Anxiety

Click below to listen to a beautiful song of hope and surrender
Hallelujah by MaMuse
Quote of the month:

"I have no special talent.  I am only passionately curious."
- Albert Einstein
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