We live in a very anxious world. Sometimes it seems like everyone is stressed out. External pressures from needing to provide the basic necessities of life to feeling the need to fit in and not be judged by others can become the focus of my internal dialogue.
My basic definition of anxiety is “fear of the future.”
Our minds get caught up in a lot of “what ifs” and before long, our bodies are joining in, and we find ourselves having trouble breathing, with hearts racing, feeling very restless, perhaps some nausea or heartburn.
When this happens, I am in full flight or fight mode, and my nervous system is reacting as if there is a large, hungry lion in the room and I need to run to escape. This is what a panic attack might look like, and most people who experience them develop some method of self soothing to cope. They might go for a walk or run, or listen to calm music, or slow their breathing down.
Other people live with chronic, ongoing daily anxiety that just chews away at their minds, damaging mental and physical well being. It’s as if the train tracks for anxiety have been laid down in the mind many years ago and that train keeps chugging along on it.
In fact, that is what happens in our minds. Habits of thought repeat themselves over and over, and most of us don’t even realize we are having these thoughts. We are wired to worry and to anticipate trouble- this negative bias has protected humanity for many generations. We need to be able to anticipate problems ahead so that we can plan for them and be prepared. We don’t need to live in them all the time, though. A nervous system that is always set to high alert makes it very difficult to function in the world.
Also, we have the ability to rip these well -traveled tracks up, and to lay down new tracks, with a train carrying new thoughts now running along in our brains.
We start by understanding how those thoughts got there, and then move on to how to replace them.
People with trauma in their pasts often struggle with anxiety. Trauma can “set us up” for anxiety, based on what we have experienced in our pasts. Other people are simply wired to worry more. Add to this that we do exist in a very challenging world that contains many things worth worrying about.
To take a holistic, spiritual approach to anxious thoughts is to acknowledge that they exist, and to accept that, for all of us, a certain amount of anxiety is simply part of being human. It can help to write down your anxieties, or to say them out loud. This can help to stop the spiraling thoughts of one anxiety leading to another- all the “what ifs?” Movement is a great way to calm yourself- anxiety creates heat and energy in the body and working off the energy by walking or other movement can be very helpful. So is listening to music that calms you.
Then there is using the calming breath.
Sometimes I think people downplay the importance of the breath because it seems too simple; and because it has become a catch phrase to tell someone, “Take a breath!” However, slowed breathing is just what the nervous system needs in order to begin to calm itself, allowing blood to return to the brain so that our reasonable mind can function. There are many types of slow breath techniques; the one I like best for calming anxiety is a “cooling breath.”
Sit in a comfortable position, preferably with spine straight and shoulders relaxed. Begin by breathing in fully through the nose, filling the lungs completely. Pause for a second, and then slowly, slowly breathe out through the mouth. Repeat several times, until you find your heart rate has slowed. Bring your attention to your heart center, and notice what is coming up for you. Notice any feelings in your body. This is just sitting with emotions and allowing them to be. When thoughts come up that are anxious or negative, just let them go. You might even thank them for helping to keep you safe.
Now, get up and do this again the next day, even if this is not an anxious day for you. With continued practice, it is possible to soothe the mind and the nervous system by tapping into your wider, deeper Selves: your soul and your spirit, your true being.
For learning more about how the brain and nervous system work and guidance with a spiritual perspective, I would recommend reading anything by Mark Waldman and Andrew Newberg. Mark is a psychologist and Andrew is an MD who studies neurobiology. Their writings bring together science and spirituality in a way I find very enlightening.
Faye Maguire, MA, LACC, is a People House private practitioner working with youth and adults, using a transpersonal approach to therapy. Counseling is her second career, after being a business owner for nearly 30 years. She enjoys working with people experiencing life transitions, grief and loss, depression, anxiety, trauma, addictions, relationship issues, and figuring out life’s direction, using a holistic approach. Please contact her at 720-331-2454 or at email@example.com for more information.