Most of us are familiar with feelings of stress and anxiety, but for some, this can be a constant companion, affecting everyday life.
Do you ever have the feeling that you just want to hide? Your palms get sweaty, your stomach churns, your breathing comes in shallow gasps, your thoughts are racing and you have trouble concentrating?
Perhaps you are feeling the need to constantly stay on alert? Your movements feel a bit awkward and uncoordinated and you struggle to find the words to express yourself?
For some of us this can happen regularly, without warning, and we have no idea where these feelings have come from.
These behaviours can all be signs of anxiety.
Signals from your Nervous System
These sensations can be seen as signals coming from your nervous system. They are your body’s attempt to bring something to your awareness.
I have learnt that the best way to address my own anxious feelings is to acknowledge them, and focus on bringing my awareness back into my body. My experience is that trying to ignore these disturbing sensations doesn’t make them go away. In fact, it seems to make them stronger, as they fight for recognition and integration.
Like me, you may have developed addictive habits to use as distractions, such as eating, shopping, talking or texting. These can all be attempts at running away from an uncomfortable feeling that is lurking just below your conscious awareness. There is no shame in acknowledging these sensations, and your counsellor can help you to work through them.
When I notice myself using these distractive behaviours (in my case, mindless eating), I remind myself to start with regulating my breathing. I try to focus on a deep, rhythmic pattern, slowing my out-breaths. The next step is to try and notice where in my body I might be experiencing these sensations, noticing any thoughts and feelings that might be associated with these sensations.
Mindfully focussing on my body’s sensations helps me to make sense of the messages my body might be trying to bring to my attention. This way I have been able to gradually build new patterns of behaviour, learning to respond, rather than react, to a given situation.
If this is a new process for you, it is a good idea to talk to your counsellor before starting.
Regulating your Breathing
When you feel anxious, your breathing tends to be shallow, short and sharp, and is confined to the upper part of the chest. You can feel this by placing a hand over your chest. There might be a sensation of tightness here, as though you can’t take in enough air.
Learning to belly-breathe is one way of bringing awareness back into your body,. This can relieve that feeling of wanting to shutdown and hide, or perhaps react in anger. (Note: if this makes you feel uncomfortable, then please stop).
Start by sitting down, which will make it easier to focus on your breathing.
Place your right hand over your chest, and your left hand over your stomach, and exhale slowly.
Inhale through your nose, and focus on bringing your breath down into your body. You should feel your left hand gently rise. Sometimes it helps to imagine a ballon under your left hand, which you will gently inflate. As you breathe out, be aware of your left hand moving gently as your stomach contracts.
Continue to modulate your breathing in this way for three or four breaths, gently allowing that imaginary balloon to inflate, then slowly empty.
Your psychotherapist can guide you through their process if it is new to you.
Note: if this makes you feel more uncomfortable, then please stop.
As your nervous system starts to regulate, and the flow of energy through your body improves, you may notice that your:
- Thinking becomes more rational
- Senses become more open to taking in information from the world around you
- Movements become more comfortable and coordinated.
It’s OK to ask for Help
A certain level of anxiety is normal. However, if you find you are struggling with feelings of overwhelm, to the extent that they are affecting your day to day living, and are causing concern to you and/or those around you, then it’s important to ask for help.
Healing happens in relationship, so contacting your counsellor or psychotherapist is a good place to start. Together you will be able to explore issues that could be triggering your anxiety, addressing them in a safe and supportive environment.
Through doing this inner work, it’s not unusual to come into contact with a little inner child who is hurting, feeling sad, and needs comfort. This inner child may be yearning for connection and understanding. By holding her/him gently, letting her/him know she/he is worthy of being loved, the anxious feelings may subside, as you grow in understanding and awareness.