Anxiety. We all get it in one form or another. The anxious moments before the first day of school/new job, that jittery feeling before a big project or exam or just some butterflies in your stomach for no apparent reason. That is anxiety; a normal dose of healthy anxiety. Sometimes a little anxiety can even be helpful. It can motivate you to study, prepare for a presentation or even train for an athletic event. It's when it becomes too intense that it can be problematic.
Anxiety can be a beast. It can be big, bad and grizzly and can infiltrate your every cell. Anxiety can be debilitating; some people find that their anxiety keeps them from functioning in every day life. I have worked with several teenagers who have so much anxiety that they are unable to attend school. They become nauseas, tearful or panic stricken; sometimes they can not even enter the school building.
The insidious thing about anxiety is that it can also manifest itself via physical symptoms. Many times migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, eczema or rashes are brought on by anxiety. Our body is a very smart organism; if we are feeling intense anxiety and not releasing it, it can build up and cause these physical ailments.
With my clients, I often ask them to first label where they feel their anxiety. They look at me like I am crazy with questioning eyes until I specify my request. "Where in your body do you feel the anxiety?" Answers have varied: stomach, head, jaw, heart, chest, even fists ("I clench my fists and want to punch someone").
We talk about when they notice the pain, pressure or sensation in that part of the body to pause and be aware. Sometimes they have the physical feeling of discomfort without being in touch with the fact that they are "feeling" anxious. Being aware is the first step to healing.
In my office, I do many different exercises with my clients to help ease their anxiety. Many times after someone has rushed out of work, sat in traffic and just barely made it to their appointment on time, I ask them to sit still for a moment and take some deep breaths.
Often, they will take quick shallow breaths and announce they are fine (clenched jaw and all). I then encourage them to close their eyes, really breathe in to expand their lungs and then completely empty their lungs repeating the process at least three times. They find that when doing the breathing properly they see that they really can slow down, be calm and focus on their session.
Other breathing techniques that I have found to really help with anxiety are for the clients to resume that deep breathing exercise for 5-7 minutes during a later part of the session. I help them to count for six seconds while they inhale and the same for the exhale while continuously focusing on their breath.
Once they are able to sustain that rhythm, we will do some guided meditation work. I ask them while keeping their eyes closed and continuing the deep breathing to picture a calm setting like the ocean, mountains, or often (especially for teenagers) their comfy cozy bed. I ask them to imagine being in that place while also maintaining the breathing, I ask them to imagine the surroundings, the sounds, smells and feel of this calm place. As they connect to this image, I ask them to store it in their memory. My hope is that when they are feeling waves of anxiety they can return to this place; their image, their breathing and the stored memory of all of the calm cues that they practiced in the meditation.
I tell my clients that, like anything, this technique works best with practice. Like building muscles at the gym, it requires work, repetition and patience. If you become anxious one day, close your eyes and command yourself to relax hoping for a "Serenity Now" experience, the technique will not only fail, it will probably make you even more anxious. I ask my clients to practice this on a daily basis when they are NOT feeling anxious; this can often be incorporated into your (or your child's) bedtime ritual, or after a hectic day at work, any time when you are committed to being still for a few moments.
When you find that you are being overwhelmed with anxiety (remember it often starts in those places in your body that had been previously identified) and have been practicing the exercise becoming familiar with your particular process of breath and calming images, the anxiety can be quelled. I have had many clients report back to me following a difficult week that the technique does work and they were able to extinguish the feelings of anxiety during a stressful situation.
If you or anyone you know is suffering in this way, please contact me (or pass this post along). Anxiety can be very uncomfortable or downright unbearable. No one should have to suffer in this way. There is relief, sometimes we just don't know where to find it. I would be happy to help facilitate the process with you.