Making Peace with Your Anxious Brain
Anxiety is at an all time high. Stress and worry fill so many folks. There is SO much to be concerned about these days. The covid 19 pandemic, civil and human rights, social issues, political issues and challenges, financial worries, physical and mental health worries, the shootings, the children…..the list seems endless. And SO heartbreaking.
So how can we navigate this? How do we cope with all this stress?
A big challenge is that some of this IS “real”. There IS a viral pandemic going on, making millions ill and costing millions of lives. There IS a lot of uncertainty. There IS social injustice. There IS financial stress in many sectors. There IS danger in our world. Yet we must live in this world.
So, let me share a few steps and tips for coping. This is not an exhaustive or complete answer by any means. And please, if you feel overwhelmed by your own circumstances, seek professional help. Everyone’s situation is different and we all and EACH deserve care and support in our unique situation. Find what YOU need to navigate your challenges.
For me, step 1 is to ACKNOWLEDGE the issue/feeling/stress. We cannot begin to handle a situation until we truly identify it. Your feelings are real and valid. Your upset is real and valid. To try to pretend you are not upset when you are is a waste of your time and energy, and harmful to you. We do not need to LIKE what we feel or the thoughts or reactions we may be having, but we need to get honest about them.
A close step 2 is to ACCEPT and be present to the thoughts and feelings and reactions. Again, this is not easy. And we do not need to like or even “approve” of what is happening within us, but it is vital we are honest about it. First to us and then to others (if and when appropriate).
Sometimes just these two steps will dispel much stress. Sometimes more is needed.
Step 3 for me is to CHALLENGE the negative/fatalistic belief that is lurking. While there is a real element that may be spiking our fear, what tends to make it unmanageable is the catastrophic level a part of our anxious brain may take it to. Our anxious brain will assume the complete WORST outcome as the only outcome. While a bad outcome is sadly possible, a number of other, less horrible outcomes, are ALSO possible. We need to bring those other possibilities into our awareness.
So, once you have acknowledged and accept the current upset, we need to settle our system a bit. We cannot do a decent job of challenging the negative if we are in a worked up state. To settle your nervous system, we need to do grounding exercises. (These can be found in various videos I have done on facebook lives. Some of these methods are also in my book SAD No More.) A slow deep breath is a grounding action. Sitting, feeling your back, seat and feet is settling. EFT can be very settling as well. There are many more. Do what works for you.
Once you are reasonably physically calm, then you can begin to challenge your catastrophic belief. Ask questions of it, like “says who?” “What ELSE might happen?” “Where did that thought come from?”
Let me give you an example. Let’s say you are afraid of catching and dying from covid 19. Mabye you have complicating health situation, maybe you have a compromised immune system. This worse case outcome of death is only ONE option. We need to use our brains to come up with other possibilities. First of all, who says you will catch it? You may not. Secondly, IF you get exposed, who says you will become seriously ill? Maybe, but maybe not. If you are vaccinated there is a good chance if exposed you will become only mildly to moderately ill. Even if you are not vaccinated, some folks are only mildly ill if they are exposed. And then let’s say you DO get fairly ill. There ARE better treatments now than at the beginning of the pandemic, for real. Some folks get very sick and do recover. (Do you see how the questioning works? Do it kindly, and remember that your anxious brain IS trying to keep you safe. Worry is all it knows! It is that evolutionary negativity bias I talk about in my book!)
Our anxious brains know only the WORST. We must use our logic skills to remind our anxious brains that there ARE some other outcomes possible. I find the questioning of the negative tends to create a more neutral middle ground.
And this is Step 4 – getting to NEUTRAL. We are NOT trying to “feel good” about the difficult situation. We are not trying to pretend the bad is not there. That is foolish and will NOT work with your anxious brain. We ARE making conscious effort to better balance the automatic negative with the more “positive” or ALSO POSSIBLE outcomes. As our mind considers MANY possible outcomes (which IS the more complete reality!), it tends to settle and calm.
This helps us come to the NOW. Right NOW you are OK, right? As you are reading this, you are OK. As you are reading this you may be worried, but those worries are probably not happening NOW. Neutral helps us be in the present moment. And NOW helps us be at peace…..even just for a moment. And that is wonderful. The more often we can create and be in this neutral NOW, the better our health and wellness will be.