How Leaning Into Your Anxiety Can Help You Manage It
Anxiety peaks when we perceive danger. That danger could be concrete, like being in the path of a dangerous hurricane, or the danger you sense might be less clear. Maybe someone’s voice, a smell, or a song brings up uncomfortable feelings, leaving you feeling anxious. So, how do we manage anxiety that is sparked by something we aren’t fully aware of?
By Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert
NoteStreams are readable online but they’re even better in the free App!
The NoteStream™ app is for learning about things that interest you: from music to history, to classic literature or cocktails. NoteStreams are truly easy to read on your smartphone—so you can learn more about the world around you and start a fresh conversation.
For a list of all authors on NoteStream, click here.
Read the NoteStream below, or download the app and read it on the go!
When people call my office looking for relief from their anxiety, I explain that we all experience anxiety from time to time because our bodies are wired for it. It’s a neurobiological response that we inherited from our ancestors long, long ago. It’s about safety. It’s unlikely it will go away with a few tools or strategies.
Anxiety peaks when we perceive danger. That danger could be concrete, like being in the path of a dangerous hurricane, where the risk of losing your property or your life is very real. Or the danger you sense might be less clear. Maybe someone’s voice, a smell, or a song brings up uncomfortable feelings, leaving you feeling anxious.
You might be able to pinpoint what made you fearful and anxious, but sometimes you get anxious and don’t know why. When this happens, it’s probably because an implicit memory has surfaced.
What Are Implicit Memories?
Implicit memories are memories that are stored in our unconscious. Most of the time, we’re not aware of them. They’re usually triggered by something in our environment—a smell, a taste or sound, the way something feels in our hands or under our feet, or the way something looks.
When they surface, our bodies react to the potential danger. We feel anxious but we’re not sure why. We might feel like our anxiety came out of nowhere. What really happened was the body sensed a danger that was buried deep in our unconscious memory.
So, how do we manage anxiety that is sparked by something we aren’t fully aware of?
First of all, it’s important to keep in mind that anxiety serves a purpose. It alerts us to danger so we can protect ourselves. That’s why it’s not going to go away altogether.
If we can be okay with the fact we will always have some anxiety, we can start to work toward managing anxiety when it feels out of our control.
Be Curious About Your Anxiety
Before you begin, know it’s important to take care of yourself while you explore what’s happening. Take some slow, deep breaths; drink a cup of tea; get out your essential oils and diffuse them. Burn incense or a candle that smells good and be sure you’re in a place that’s comfortable and safe.
The first step is to be curious about how your anxiety shows up. At first, try exploring how your body feels when you’re not anxious. As you get to know your body’s reactions to stress, you’ll start to become aware that your body tells you when your anxiety is ramping up.
Next, you’ll want to pay attention to how your body talks to you. You might ask yourself:
“Where in my body do I feel my anxiety? Is it in my chest, my shoulders or throat, my back or legs?”
“How is my body reacting? Is my heart racing? Are my breaths shallow and quick? Am I hot or cold?”
“Does my stomach feel like butterflies, or nauseous?”
The next step is to dig deep into what happens in your head. Your views about what’s going on can affect how you react when you’re stressed or anxious. If you assume the worst, you’re probably going to feel anxious. That’s why it’s important to be curious about how you interpret things happening to you or around you. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking right now? What meaning am I making around this event?”
If an implicit memory triggered your anxiety, your body will feel like it’s actually in the past, at the time the memory formed. You want to bring yourself back to the here-and-now. To do that, take a look around and name a few things you can see hear, smell, or touch. This is called “grounding.”
Lastly, explore how your physical reactions and your thoughts about the anxiety make you feel. Research has shown that naming feelings can help ease intense, difficult emotions. Naming emotions reduces activity in the part of the brain that senses danger, and activates the part that promotes problem-solving and curiosity. Try to pinpoint the feeling with your description. Instead of saying you’re happy or sad, you might say you’re feeling elated or rejected.
Offer Yourself Compassion
It’s really important not to judge yourself when you investigate your anxiety. If you can, just note what’s going on and respond with curiosity. Ask yourself how you would respond if a friend were experiencing the same thing. Can you offer yourself that same compassion?
Bring Anxiety Out Into the Open
Do you see what’s happening here? Instead of pushing the anxiety away, yelling at yourself for being anxious, or trying to ignore the feeling, you’re leaning into it. You’re beginning to get to know it better, you’re approaching it with some compassion, and you’re allowing it to be there while you investigate. As you go through this process, you might find the anxiety begins to lessen. Anxiety loves secrets and hiding, so bringing it out into the open can reduce its power.
Acknowledging that your anxiety will surface from time to time, sometimes for what seems like no reason at all, gives you permission to be with it and to be curious about it when it shows up.
University of California-Los Angeles. (2007, June 22). Putting Feelings Into Words Produces Therapeutic Effects In The Brain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/06/070622090727.htm