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Anxiety – How to Manage it Well?
I realized while talking to many people that problematic anxiety is so common and we are so little equipped to manage it when it’s poisoning our lives. I’m writing this post to share a bit of background on anxiety and pass on some tricks I learned over 20 years battling it.
Anxiety is the twin brother of fear. Anxiety is the fight or flight response to a diffuse sense of threat while fear is the response to an immediate and known threat.
Like fear, the symptoms of anxiety are an increase heart rate, an increased speed of the breath, an increase in the adrenaline in the body. The body is preparing to the short additional need for energy in the fight or flight reaction.
When anxiety lasts it causes a general feeling of muscle tension, often very perceptible in the digestive and chest area, and an increased burn of energy.
Anxiety, like all emotional response mechanisms is part of a circle starting, normally, with a thought that generates a feeling that generates a body response that reinforces the thought.
Anxiety becomes problematic when it starts impacting our quality of life. Either the stressors that are in our lives are too much and trigger, constantly, the mechanism or the anxiety feeling is coming from something less rational than a realistic diffuse danger and is self-fuelling turning our lives in a nightmare.
My anxiety started in my mid 20th to impact my quality of life. First it came due to the increased personal and professional responsibilities I was facing but then it became a habit fuelled by my lack of self-confidence and fear of abandonment – see my post about Grieving my Mom’s Death for some details of the root causes.
As I was riding my roller coaster life-style anxiety became part of my everyday life until it dragged so much on my vital energy that I had issues waking up every morning, didn’t have the will to do anything and finally did a burnout in 2006.
I got medicated, with anxiolytics and anti-depressants and was lucky enough to meet a wonderful shrink called Anne-Françoise Chevalley that helped me first with an emergency technique to be applied when anxiety popped up and then kickstarted the real healing process that was needed. This experience is where I’m sharing from what I write here.
Anne-Françoise is a Cognitive and Behavioural therapist so her toolkit is extremely practical and based on the experimental findings of her discipline. As I said emotional responses are all part of the circle of thoughts generating feelings generating body responses reinforcing thoughts. The simplest part to break this reinforcement circle is the body. As I wrote above, the body response to stress is increased heart-rate, increased speed of breath which both contribute to raising the alertness of the brain to respond to the stress factor in an appropriate way. These body reactions can be felt as tight chest, tight muscles, tingly bowels and similar. These body reactions reinforce the sense of fear and fuel the circle.
Since the starting point of the body response is the increased oxygen supply of the brain that’s also what we can work on.
To reduce the oxygen supply to the brain we need to reduce the general oxygen supply to the body. In order to achieve that we need to bring in less air. So we can control our breathing the following way:
- When breathing in, we stop the intake when the lung is 3/4 full.
- We hold the breath for 2 seconds.
- We exhale but only until the lungs are 3/4 empty.
- We hold the breath for 2 seconds.
- We repeat this until the sense of anxiety goes down to below 3 on a scale of 10 but at least 12 times.
We can make this process a habit. Every time anxiety pops up we manage it down. This is life changing because the constant energy drag lowers, we can start living our life in a calmer way which makes us do better decisions and be less afraid of consequences and thus reducing the stressors.
Root Cause Analysis
For me the real healing started unfolding when I started my Meditation daily practice. It didn’t start because Meditation relaxed me but because Meditation allowed me to go to the roots of what was triggering the Anxiety itself. When I started understanding why I was constantly afraid I also started being less and less afraid. It’s still an ongoing process because I’m still uncovering layers of emotional debt but my anxiety is gone most of the days and I’m feeling more free and happy. Always remember that a feeling that is not reinforced lasts 12 seconds on average. The whole process is to learn to not reinforce them.
Feelings are our Friends
I want to highlight before closing this article that feelings are our friends. The reason I’m saying that is that the natural response we all tend to have when feelings overwhelm us and start controlling our lives is to push them away and bottle them. Bottled feelings are not gone and forgotten and they continue chewing at us but outside of the realm of our awareness making us miserable and disconnected. We are humans and humans are social animals and the feelings are part of a functions social animal. Feelings give us information about inner and outer reality and need to be integrated in our decision making. Like always though the point is not to be prisoners of them especially when they don’t stem from reality.