Life Lessons from Anxiety
Anxiety – it’s that demon lurking in the shadows of our mind waiting for an easy prey, a thought that can force us to spiral down into the depths of darkness. Over the last year, I have worked with a few clients battling this demon. In some cases we’ve succeeded, in some we are still working on it. But there are a few common patterns that when broken made life better for all of them.
At no point am I attempting to simplify this very painful and chronic experience. I only hope that some of the perspectives shared in this post help you do something differently or at best inspire you to find an action that will work for you. The lessons I’ve learnt from my clients as we travelled through the dark lands of anxiety have taught me so much more about the light and dark that governs our lives, our minds. And sometimes all you need is to take one step to the left (or maybe to the right) to step out of the shadows and into the light.
“My mind is in chaos” – just one of the few ways in which clients with anxiety have described how they are feeling. And on most days a good, strong grounding meditation helps them find their centre, find that moment of stillness they need most. How does this work?
Ever heard of electrical wiring needing earthing? “In an electrical installation or an electricity supply system an earthing system or grounding system connects specific parts of that installation with the Earth’s conductive surface for safety and functional purposes. The point of reference is the Earth’s conductive surface, or on ships, the surface of the sea.” Thank you Wikipedia for that beautiful definition. Well, grounding meditation does exactly that for all the energy that is surging through our being. Every thought, every neuron shooting off is energy and without strong grounding this can cause instability. Also one of the reasons why walking barefoot on grass suddenly calms us down.
A regular meditation practice, as little as 3 minutes per day, teaches you to breathe better. It teaches the body and mind to pace itself instead of clamping down in stressful situations. I’ve given my clients battling anxiety a recording of a 15-minute grounding meditation and they do it every night before they sleep. Some even do it first thing in the morning. And all of them use it as an SOS when the anxiety hits. This simple step has made it possible for them to reduce or overcome panic attacks especially when external triggers slam that switch within.
2. It’s okay to feel “anxious”
“Chets I can’t get rid of this feeling of anxiety” or “I feel the anxiety coming on”. It’s not uncommon for me to get a call or a message from a client with these words. But what changed the game was when we changed the words. So we consciously decided to replace ‘having or feeling anxiety’ with ‘feeling anxious’. Suddenly they went from dealing with an illness, a label, to processing an emotion.
Sometimes we break that anxious feeling further and deal with every little trigger or thought one at a time. But I feel anxious and so does every single one of us. So keep it in its place as much as possible and you’ll find appropriate coping mechanisms.
I have now learnt how important it is to acknowledge every single emotion of ours. Happiness… that one feeling or state of being that we all are chasing… It’s one of many emotions I hold within. So take a deep breath and make room for others.
3. I am… :
Judgement; that voice in the head that’s telling you how bad you are or how you aren’t capable of anything. It’s easy to say, “don’t judge yourself”. But acceptance is a lot of work. So where does one begin?
You start by asking yourself, “What do I want to feel right now?” To stop doing something, you need to start doing something else. You have to give the mind something stronger to think about. So when a client says, “I feel like a failure” or “I feel like I’ll never be able to do anything”, I always acknowledge it and ask them what would they like to feel instead. Once we have the answer we come up with small actions to create that feeling. No matter what you think of yourself in that moment, always remember you hold the power to make yourself feel better too.
Changing one’s self-talk, consciously choosing your words helps in taking charge of the chaos within. It also allows you to rediscover yourself and rebuild your being with stronger better thinking and feeling patterns.
4. Break it down:
I remember a client calling me one morning saying she was on the verge of a panic attack. She was rambling away about all the things she had to do but would not be able to do and how she was not good enough because she couldn’t function that day. I stopped her, a bit forcefully, and asked her what did she want most in that moment. “To get out of bed,” was her reply. So we took a deep breath and focused on doing just that. A few moments later I asked her what are the next 3 things she needs to and wants to do. “Brush my teeth, shower and have coffee”. So I told her to do just those three and to call me back with the coffee in her hand. 20 mins later her voice was stronger and she knew the next two tasks she would focus on. That day she rolled through her day one task at a time. And in the evening she slept peacefully with a beautiful sense of accomplishment. Today being anxious is just an emotion and being productive despite internal or external chaos is slowly becoming a habit.
Overwhelmed – that’s a feeling we’ve waded through many times over many sessions. But the trick is simple… takes practice and consistency … yet simple to do. When overwhelmed, break it down and then build it up slowly. Only focus on the immediate task even if that is as small as getting out of bed and entering the bathroom. Once you’ve done that, first tell yourself “Well done. Let’s get to the next task.” Acknowledgement is very important especially on dark days. So don’t be shy and say it even if it feels fake or silly. Remember we have to faith it till we make it.
5. The done list
So one of my clients found a lovely way of getting things done especially through those anxiety ridden mornings. We call it “the done list”. Instead of making a to-do list, she writes down the task once it’s done and strikes it off. So at the end of the day or sometimes just before her break we’d have a list of tasks all completed. Now I don’t need to tell you how good that feels… seeing that list of to-do all done. In time she has also managed to write a few to-do items before she gets them done; slowly overcoming her fear of not being able to complete tasks or getting things done.
6. But that’s “normal”:
This is one of my favourite phrases when helping my clients shift their perceptions. Those battling anxiety often see and experience daily life situations with an extreme intensity. And with each of my clients I break the situation down, we break it apart and we understand what is normal for us and what is not. Slowly and steadily a sense of “Oh! I’m not alone. Others experience this too” grows and it helps them look at their life and day from a freshly minted “this is normal” lens. With every client who has defeated this demon called anxiety, this has been one of the most significant actions – learning to say it’s okay, learning to look at situations as “normal”.
7. I’m holding space:
To hold space is my version of unconditional, non-judgmental love. There have been so many instances when all I’ve done is had a cup of coffee while my client ranted, raved or rambled on. And slowly I find them throwing insights at me; which I’d use to nudge them in a different direction. One step forward, two steps back and slowly we’d dance into a space of calm awareness. On some days, just being there for someone in pain, holding space is all that’s needed.
Every time I worked out one of the tricks or mindsets mentioned above with a client of mine, I’ve worked at inculcating them too. Why? Because these are simple effective ways of dealing with stress and heavy emotions. And that’s something we all are battling today. If any of you have other ways in which you battle anxiousness or emotional chaos, do leave me a comment. Tell your story, you never know who it inspires.