Anxiety affects everyone. I think most people feel anxious at some point every day. It might come in the form of shortness of breath or holding your breath, obsessive thoughts or behaviours, tension in the body, needing to wee a lot, loss of appetite or craving for food.
In my case it often manifests as itchy skin, and at times I’ve had very severe eczema as a result.
The ways that we habitually respond to it are often counter-productive. Here are three things not to do:
- Ignore the feeling
It’s completely understandable. No likes feeling anxious, so why wouldn’t you try to distract yourself away from it with busyness, caffeine, sugar, alcohol or social media?
The problem is, it just doesn’t work to ignore it. This is because your system is trying to signal to you that there’s a threat, and if you ignore the alarm, the alarm sounds louder, until you acknowledge it.
What does work is paying attention to what’s happening. Are you feeling tension somewhere in the body, if so investigate it. Has your breathing changed? Is so, watch it. I tend to itch and find myself scratching when I’m feeling anxious and I’m not paying attention. When I do pay attention, I stop scratching.
- Think your way out of it
The chances are, what you’re anxious about is an imagined threat and you’re not actually in any danger. There almost certainly isn’t a saber-tooth tiger about to bite your head off, which is what your body is physiologically preparing for.
It’s thoughts that generated the feelings, so more thinking might not help very much.
Often, anxiety precipitates an onslaught of thoughts. When you notice this happening, try switching your attention to your breath or your body. When you start thinking, repeatedly bring your attention back again.
- Judge yourself
So often, people tell themselves “I shouldn’t be feeling like this” or “I don’t want to feel like this.” This is what in mindfulness is called the Second Arrow. The first arrow is the feelings of anxiety, and the second arrow is the judgment. The second prolongs and intensifies the feeling of the first.
Instead, try reminding yourself that it’s OK to feel like this. Would you tell a friend that it was wrong or bad to feel anxious, or would you just try to comfort them?
Although it’s unpleasant, we should actually be grateful for it. We had ancestors that never worried about danger, and they all got eaten or fell off cliffs!
Mindfulness doesn’t help you ‘get rid’ of anxiety, its helps you to change the way that you respond to it, which over time does usually reduce how much you experience it in the first place. I’m far less anxious than I was before I started meditating.
So next time you’re experiencing anxiety, don’t ignore it, pay attention to it. Don’t think you’re way out of it, feel it. And try not to judge yourself for it. There’s no wrong or bad way to feel.