Now, if you are already doing everything you can to limit the risks, prepare for the future and increase the health and safety of yourself (as well as your loved ones and society) externally, there is one elephant left in the room…
What can I do about my ANXIETY?
As more and more of us are isolated and locked down in our homes, anxiety (the anticipation of a dreadful future) and it’s bedfellows worry (ongoing hum of anxious thoughts) and fear (a valid response to the present threat) are forces begging to be reckoned with ~ as soon as possible.
Not to scare you further, but…
The cost of continuing to wrestle with anxiety ~ without a pathway to transform it ~ is very high.
Ongoing anxiety is directly related to the weakening of our immune system, our overall health and the ability to respond effectively to threats.
Thus the adage:
Anxiety is useful advisor
but a terrible master.
This could not be more true in these times of pandemic, as literally billions of people — regardless of race, age, intelligence and wealth— experience more terror and dread all throughout the day.
Over a few weeks, we have become a more anxious planet. We are all affected. And it has become our moment to moment reality.
So, how do we turn our anxiety into more useful
states of being like clarity, calm and courage?
Let Us Start By Understanding Anxiety…
A helpful analogy here is to think of anxiety as electricity.
Our nervous system is the wiring.
Our mind and body are the grid.
Without any “juice”, we are cold and in the dark.
Just enough electrical flow can light us up!
Too much really zaps us!
When we push our grids to capacity ~ too often ~ we become tired and wired.
When we experience anxiety in doses which exceed our grid’s capacity, we experience overwhelm and burn out. The wires burn and fray and the system failsafe shuts us down.
That is why depression tends to follow on the heels of prolonged anxiety.
So, let’s get ahead of this powerful emotion!
This article is my way of empowering you with a deeper understanding of the experience of fear so that you can transform it into something more useful by the time you finish reading and in the weeks ahead.
Anxiety cannot be gotten rid of.
It can only be transformed.
Dealt with in the right way, anxiety either shifts up or down.
To grasp how it goes down, think of intense lighting going through a grounding rod…
Our anxiety, once grounded and allowed to go through us safely, becomes a deeper sense of calm and clarity.
This is not the calm of imagining a happy place or floating above it all (aka, spiritual bypassing).
It’s a real sense of knowing the following in our bones:
I am fully awake and aware of all the risks.
I am doing all I can.
The rest is out of my hands.
In this state of mind and experience in the body, we are able to learn from our past mistakes and success. And we are ready to be creative and improvise as new developments emerge.
To understand how anxiety shifts upward, consider when we dread something intense like going on a rollercoaster ride for the first time.
Before we get on, our legs buckle and we freeze up. Once on the ride, we hold on with stiff claws, jaw locked holding our breath.
Yet, afterwards, we experience a sense of thrill and exhilaration throughout our entire body!
This is the experience of riding with our anxiety turning it into excitement and courage.
“Fear is just excitement,
without the breath.”
~ Fritz Perls
Sounds hopeful, right?
We, here’s the truth.
Whether we experience something anxiety provoking (like COVID-19) and transform it into calm and courage is not a given.
It involves deliberate choice.
The most common choice people make is to stay stuck in a loop of fear and anxiety— without ever shifting up or down.
Not because we want to!
But because we never learned about fear and anxiety in school or life.
That is why knowing how to shift up or down and get through it is so critical and game changing ~ especially in these pandemic times of extreme and warranted anxiety.
Before we get to that and I give you specific examples of “how” to transform anxiety into clarity, calm, courage, we need to understand something else first…
The Two Most Common Ways We Make Anxiety Much Worse
Imagine a spectrum of ways to respond to fear.
On the extreme poles are two reactive and automatic ways to deal with our terror: panic and denial.
Reaction #1 : DENIAL
We stick our heads into the sand hoping to avoid the worldwide panic.
We stay in ignorance.
Then, we minimize it or call it a hoax.
The virus does not care about what we think.
It exists and progresses despite our hopes and wishes.
Reaction #2: FULL PANIC MODE
We run around like a chicken with our heads cut off.
We buy too much toilet paper yet forget to get the medicine and enough food.
We are not able to think clearly and prepare for all that it will take to weather this intense storm and what looks to be a drawn out siege.
Why are panic and denial so common?
Remember “World War Z”?
It’s a fictional tale which describes in great detail a pandemic (albeit a zombie one).
It turns out that the author, Max Brooks, predicted with incredible accuracy a lot of what is happening in the world right now, in terms of the speed and reach of the virus.
He also brings deeper insight into our denial and panic responses
Here’s what he has to say in this recent interview:
“[Sigh.] Well, I mean, I think, at this point, today, our biggest enemy is panic because we’re reaching that mass psychological tipping point.
We’ve been in denial too long, and panic is the fruit of denial.
That’s not just society – that’s individuals. When you stick your head in the sand and you deny something, and you keep denying it long enough, then suddenly you get caught up in the problem and you’re not prepared for the problem, that’s when you panic. I’m starting to see that, and that is very scary.
Panic is the one thing we do not need right now. If there was ever a time for clarity and facts, this is it.”
If panic and denial are two ends of the same pendulum…
How do we stop the reactive swinging back and forth?
And how do we come to grips with and harness our anxiety for good?
3 Levels of Response to Fear:
There are three levels of response (not reaction) to fear.
We can learn to survive it, to cope with it to grow from it.
Reading this far, I bet you want to grow through your current anxiety, turning it into calm and courage ~ as soon as possible.
And yet, to grasp what it takes to get into that larger circle (the growth level), we need to understand and build on the previous two levels: surviving and coping.
Growing up I was a worry wort and a slave to my fears.
My doctor diagnosed me (I found out later) by scribbling notes across my file, detailing the douzen visits a year, with “Hypochondriac” and “anxiety meds?”
About 15 years ago, I went through a phase of panic attacks so debilitating, I was peeing in a jar and hiding indoors for a few months.
The waves of terror would come at any time. I would brace myself to be swept up by the overwhelming sense of doom and to crash afterwards in trembling exhaustion.
Clearly, at this time I wasn’t even in survival mode, but rather overwhelmed and drowning in my fear.
What helped me to weather the storms initially was focusing on the following basics:
- Good food and lots of water — hydrating and eating less crap does make a difference!
- Sleeping more — our nervous system needs a lot of rest to repair!
- Getting outside — being in the sun (I was vitamin D deficient) and walking.
- A good friend — nothing more powerful to help us feel accepted and less alone when feeling “crazy”.
- Crisis Helplines — when all else fails and panic sets in, a calm and grounded voice can provide an anchor in the storm.
All of these measures helped me to get into survival mode, but the panic and anxiety still beat me up.
In those quiet times alone at night, I felt like I was back in the water drowning again.
I needed to make a more powerful pivot to learn how to COPE and function with my anxiety…
Here’s what it really took for me to return to my studies and work (functioning again) and to learn to cope and live with anxiety productively.
Even though I was training to be a therapist at the time, I needed therapy myself (2–3 times a week) and to finally start learning the emotional skills to get out of survival mode for good.
Being sensitive and curious, and a personal growth geek since I was 12, I dove in to study and apply everything I could regarding anxiety.
The good news is that out of all of the mental health disorders, anxiety is one of the fastest and easiest (relatively) to manage.
NOTE ABOUT PILLS: I did considered meds. I also see their value for many people suffering with chronic anxiety. But, even though I was overwhelmed with anxiety at the time, I also wanted more lasting results without the side effects.
Thus I searched for tools and strategies.
This led me to C.B.T. (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which I used to map out my fears (and other negatively impactful emotions) and to face them.
I started being a detective getting to know my fears, as Tim Ferris, encourages in this TEDtalk:
I learned how to side step my triggers — seeing mental habits as traps and body cues as warning me of nearby landmines.
I also dug into the ever emerging neuroscience of how our brains work, which helped me feel less crazy and alone and offered me hope to know more.
Wanting to go deeper into coping and managing my anxiety, I came upon A.C.T. (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) which resonated with my Mindfulness background and a deeper understanding of fear.
Here is the founder of A.C.T., Stephen Hayes describing in 3 minutes how…
Using A.C.T., I started to develop courage to pursue my dreams and to live out of my values.
I found ways to more actively navigate the terrain of my fears.
The stormy zones of panic still came and blasted me, but I had discovered ways to batten down and wait for it to pass.
Learning to better function and cope with fear felt empowering.
It affirmed for me what Winston Churchill said about fear:
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance…”
I discovered some mastery over my fear — no longer its slave.
Yet, there was a limit to all of my coping strategies.
It led me to learn more deeper approaches to anxiety, and how uproot and transform my fears.
As COVID-19 hit us a couple of weeks ago, I started seeing some great resources popping up online to help with anxiety.
All seem helpful to some degree (except those which encouraging bypassing and denial), but there is something missing in many of them — how to accept and transform fear on a deeper level.
I only began to really discover freedom with and from my anxiety after I first learned to survive and then cope with my anxiety those years ago.
And it took a leap of faith and a paradigm shift until I discovered how to level up my response: to embrace fear and grow through it…
There are many powerful tools and resources which help us to grow through anxiety and to transform it into calm and courage.
These growth focused approaches have been around for a long time (some for thousands of years) but only became validated by the professional mental health system once they were applied to helping people struggling with some of the most pervasive conditions like chronic anxiety, depression and trauma (PTSD — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
I call all of these approaches “bottom up” or body-based in contrast to many coping strategies which are “top-down” and brain based.
The basics you need to understand to get started are the following:
- The body knows how to regulate our nervous system best.
- All emotions — when fully experienced and processed in the body — naturally evolve from negative into much more positive states.
- Our conscious mind often gets in the way of this natural process (hence the need to engage with the body’s own wisdom directly).
There are several treatments that help you to do this skillfully and with lasting results. The top three most common ones to find in your area are:
- E.M.D.R. (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing): currently one of the most popular therapies helping you to process and integrate anxiety and trauma. You can google it but more on EMDR here.
- SOMATIC EXPERIENCING: Peter Levine (author of Waking The Tiger) is one of the pioneers of body based treatments with this (one of my favourite) approaches. It is based on the understanding of how our nervous system heals and repairs itself — awakening our innate ability to heal and grow.
- BODY PSYCHOTHERAPIES and INTEGRATIVE therapies: There are specific approaches out there such as the Creative Arts Therapies, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy and Body Psychotherapy while others fall under the more general umbrella of “integrative” and “trauma informed”.
A few things to consider if you wish to get professional help, followed by a not on alternative approaches and one resource to start helping yourself to grow right away.
3 Considerations with Psychotherapy
1. It can be quite expensive…
Securing any trained guidance that is truly helping us grow through and beyond anxiety is an investment in our growth ~ something I count as priceless in the ways it has made my life better and helped me to love and care for others.
At the same time, deeper growth does not happen in one session, but in layers and a cascade of sessions over time. Expect this as part of the journey, a period of deliberate growth which sets you up for the next chapter of your life.
2. It can feel slow…
Even though body-based therapies are (in my experience) more powerful and quicker than many conventional therapies which may only teach cognitive and coping strategies, it will still take more time than most people wish.
When paralyzed by fear, we often wish for a magic wand to make those electric tired and wired feelings to melt away instantly.
Yes, there are ways to create relief through the body right away, however deeper growth and change — especially with chronic and core fears — can take several sessions or more.
3. It doesn’t always work…
Although psychotherapy has a great track record in relation to meds and others approaches, for various reasons, seeing even the most renown and skilled therapist is not a guarantee you will get results.
Best advice I give is to set specific goals (ie: reducing intensity of anxiety over time) track results with your helping professional over time and worry less about the approach which is not correlated to outcomes as much as your relationship with the helper.
A growing body of research shows that if you feel confident in them, how they are guiding you, that they understand you (enough) and you feel like you are moving forward on your goals, these are indicators you are most likely on the right track.
Most people do not choose therapy but look elsewhere for growth.
There are so many wonderful body based paths which can lead to growth and transformation ~ not only of our fears but other negative and unsettling states (doubt, shame, guilt, anger, etc.).
Some which I and many of my clients and friends recommend are:
- Nature connection — as a path to connect to ourselves and get back into harmony with the world around us.
- Dance — as a way to learn to move more naturally and with grace, courage and calm.
- Yoga — as a way to release tensions and develop new patterns of health and vitality.
- Martial Arts — as a way to confront many fears and evolve our responses.
- Massage — not only receiving to support the body but also learning to give to those we love (ie: Thai Yoga Massage)
- Ayahuasca — read this journalist’s experience and if interested, best to research and find people worthy of trust to do this with.
These approaches can lead to good exercise, simply restore and/or help us to cope with anxiety and that is all. Or, they can be much deeper pathways in helping to transform our anxieties. The key is in how you and the teacher and community frame and approach the practices.
Facing our fears, aka leaning in to the anxiety — while supported by a compassionate and skilful teacher — in such a context often leads to growth and transformation which unlocks deeper layers of calm and vitality in the nervous system.
Last but not least, a way to transform fear asap…
One way to process fear and panic which I credit with saving my life 15 years ago is an approach called “Tapping” or EFT (Emotion Freedom Techniques)
SIDE NOTE: the EFT I mention is not the other EFT (Emotion Focused Therapy) which is a great approach for healing and bonding as a couple.
Over the years, I‘ve learned douzens of ways to process and transform negative and painful emotions like fear and panic trapped in the nervous system which work very effectively and reasonably quickly.
But “Tapping” is my favourite to teach friends, clients and to use myself for two reasons.
One, you can do it on yourself at any time. You don’t need a trained therapist, money to spend on courses, or to take a long time to be highly skilled for it to work.
I think of it as the Dummies version for Emotional Relief and Growth.
Tapping is also very empowering. I imagine it is also likely why it spread most quickly from VA hospitals helping vets to transform their most debilitating PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) symptoms into what some researchers now label as Post Traumatic Growth.
The second reason I love teaching people to “tap” is that you can do it even when you are overwhelmed (10 out of 10 on the SUDs scale) and it starts to settle your nervous system right away.
Here’s a video I made for friends and family to help us all to better grow through fear and panic using this approach:
I hope this article was deep and comprehensive enough while also offering you some immediate options for help.
If you are overwhelmed and drowning in your anxiety, it’s exhausting I know and I encourage you to not give up. Use some immediate survival strategies to get out of the water.
Once you stabilize, grab some of the resources on coping above.
If you have been learning to cope and want to experience more calm (amidst the storms of life) and to awaken more courage to life more fully and love more deeply, I encourage you to watch my video above and consider professional help and other alternative supports which will help you grow, evolve and thrive even in these unprecedented and anxiety evoking times of pandemic.
Thank you for reading.
Please share any reflections below…
…especially on what has helped you to grow through anxiety for us all to learn together!