Posted with permission from Laurie Ganberg, LICSW.
Lower expectations. Rest when you can. Remember this period of physical isolation will not last forever. If anxiety, panic, or adrenaline is spiking, try one — or aim for a bingo — of these grounding and distress tolerance skills to calm your activated nervous system.
Posted with permission from Laurie Ganberg, LICSW.
So I moved from Portland, Maine to the Northern Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State. Westward, ho! If you tend to be an anxious person, this is not a recommended treatment. In effect, you take your entire life, just turn it upside down and shake it, leave behind everything that is familiar to you, all the precious relationships, then step into a catapult, pull the release lever, and POW! you fly willy-nilly into a new life. In my case, it was almost a straight line across the country. I landed in an area that I had barely explored, other than to identify perhaps the county I would wish to live in. The entire event was ‘woo-woo’: time elided, ground shifted. It was pretty surreal. Ultimately there needs to be a very good reason to put yourself through this tumult—the angst of multiple endings and the stress of a whacking new beginning. I could do it with panache when I was young, but now? Not so much! Roots, connections, friendships, networks—all, in the wind.
Thus, two years ago I sat on some steps at the rental I’d found in a village across the Puget Sound from Seattle. I looked around and thought, "I'm glad grass and dandelions look the same!" because nothing else did. In a surreal (I would end up using that word a lot) moment, I wondered whether I'd landed in the movie Avatar. Maine was covered in snow, but everything here was green and the cedar trees absolutely towered overhead. Bird song was at times so raucous that I wondered if monkeys inhabited the upper realms. There was, and is, this large, profoundly blue bird that has a black neck and head, topped with a swizzle of black hair—er, feathers—called a Stellar Jay. I'd never imagined anything like it, and it was a dandy shock to me. Then there is some teeny bird (I've only seen it in profile) that opens its spindle beak and casts forth the full volume and range of operatic ardor. Where am I, I've wondered?
Those of you who are in the process of moving, may the hand of whatever Deity you believe in, even if it's straight biology, may that hand be cupped over you or lifting up under you, and delivering you to exactly where you most belong. May you find your people swiftly, and assuage your anxiety through the active process of using grounding tools and cues to the parasympathetic nervous system. If you tend to be anxious—it will still be really hard! But accept “this is really hard”, and relax as much as you can. Remember that it was extremely stressful to me—and I specialize in emotional work. So what are you asking of yourself? Is there a remorseless list of shoulds? "I should be okay with this! I should be over it!" I’ve said them all. Yuck. Please be as kind to yourself as you would ever wish to be to your most beloved, whether that is an elder, parent, lover, friend or child.
All blessings to you.
Here is a gender-neutral, non-denominational, mental-health ‘take’ on a famous prayer:
Do you have a favorite prayer, version of a known prayer, mantra, or meditative phrase
that you would like to share?
Anxiety Reducing Alternatives to…. NEWSFEEDS….the endless scroll of anger, agony and abuse!!!
Take a break and check out these websites to soothe your system: stir the calming neurotransmitters that are naturally released in your body by the presence of beauty, humor and kindness—herein provided by the natural world.
Recently we foster-parented a Lab, that classic, coastal, galumphing bundle of life-enjoying fur that can be counted on to slobber freely, investigate the house and all its waste-baskets, drink from the toilet, track in mud, etc. Only what came home was a…a…a greyhound?? Maybe with a soupcon of lab or, gulp, pit bull? (Full breed greyhounds are the chicken-heads of the dog realm, having much body vs head size—but this sweet girl has a modest wedge head.) I looked up “greyhound” on the computer and was struck heartily by this:
“Be honest...is there tension in your home? Are people loud or angry or emotional? Are there arguments or fights? Greyhounds are extremely sensitive to stress and can end up literally sick to their stomachs, with severe digestive upsets and neurotic behaviors, if the people in their home are having family problems. Greyhounds are peaceful, sensitive dogs who need a peaceful, harmonious home.” –yourpurebredpuppy.com
Wow, thought I. And what about our children?? What about when WE were children? Then I thought about the range of children: some, more like pit-bulls, some in the Lab family—yet many, oh so very sensitive, filled with extra miles of nerve filaments; lovely, dear little people who pick up on EVERY morsel of tension and undercurrent of stress in the home—not because they want to, but because that, my friend, is how they are wired. (Were you one of them?)
Loving parents who happen to be in a tortured relationship surely find it so painful to realize the impact of in-house tension on their children! Who would ever give birth to a child with a wish to harm that little person? Who gets married hoping to fight? Okay, I’ve been around the block long enough to know that there are some people for whom a child is merely an object, easy to abuse, and anger is the only way to relate. So, okay, there is that percentage—but they are extremely unlikely to read this website or give these issues a thought.
But you who are reading this are not like that: you care. I wonder if you suffer from anxiety because you grew up in a high-stress household, and you have always been sensitive? Maybe even persecuted for it: stop being so sensitive!! It’s hard to reconnect with appreciation for the beauty of one’s own sensitivity, if you have been shamed for it. Also, I wonder if you struggle to create a healthy environment for children while you, yourself, have health issues / addictions / conflicts with your mate? And what if you were also shamed for being super-sensitive, when you were a precious, powerless little child?
Anxiety arises out of the cross-fire between what is happening and what we wish were happening; what we don’t say and what we wish we could say; feeling helpless, voiceless and impotent in spite of our best efforts; feeling impoverished, on so many levels, while longing to secure a base. Perhaps you have a child and desperately want to gift him or her with a sense of the abundant potential and beauty of life, while feeling pretty dire and thread-bare yourself. How stressful!
Fortunately, we are amazing beings. We can learn to use our voices to advocate for ourselves. We can awaken to appreciation for our own nature and s-l-o-w-l-y reconnect inside, choosing self-respect over self-hate. Even writing that line seems cringe-worthy to me because I know, I know, the long, arduous work that goes into disempowering the anxiety-creating voices of self-doubt and shame in order to create a solid base within! It’s not at all simple or easy, but it is fundamental to reducing anxiety.
Yet…we will always be greyhounds. All the work in the world—psychotherapy, visualizations, activities, body cues, even light-weight medication—won’t change the basic wiring, the sensitivity. And… why ever would we want that to change?? Sensitivity is a gift, and our loved ones benefit. The world benefits when we use our sensitivity skillfully. Injustices can be addressed, negotiations carefully handled, when people are comfortable with their sensitivity.
The most important place to appreciate our sensitivity is within. Otherwise we may be nervy, neurotic, hyper-reactive and prone to hearing everything as criticism. And that’s a painful place to be. It hurts us, and it hurts important people in our lives. So ask yourself, how far back in my life go the threads of my anxiety? Is it really, solely, about the toxic person in my workplace? Did it just start when I brought home that total loser who is drinking the rent money and mean to the cat? (Why do I think I should be with that person??)
Do I feel voiceless? Powerless (in the “empowered” sense)? What shame-load am I toting? Is it okay to be me? I know, I know: sometimes a little crazy, or a lot; sometimes thinking horrible thoughts, blah blah blah…. But do I accept that I have a couple of extra miles of wiring within me (the human nervous system has “over 45 miles of nerves” -Wikipedia)? And while that can be my downfall—it’s also my Super Power?
Let’s cartoonize the situation. Anyone with Super Powers has a Mission, right? Our Mission is to learn how to handle our Super Powers so we can serve the Forces of Good. That would be in our own ecosystems (body, mind, emotions, spirit), with our family and friends, at work and in the big, fat macro. If the greyhound symbol wasn’t already taken, we could use that. But maybe a nerve-ending could by stylized (they’re pretty weird looking) onto a cape. Or T-shirt.
Shine the light within (for me, that used to be a wee candle in a great, dark cavern) and seek to recognize the inhabitants of your sensitivities. What healthy beauties step forward, longing to be heard? The kind impulse, the understanding, the piercing insight, the loving child who has been neglected for too long, the archetypal Mother in you? (No, not the devouring one, or the mean one: the Nourishing, Life-Giving one!)
If a big life change is called for, because you realize that you are crimped into a tiny space in which you cannot exercise your Super Powers—know that greyhounds are very fast. Once you commit to getting yourself elsewhere—metaphorically or in real time—you have it in you to succeed. Seek a therapist, use Anxiety Soothers—do whatever it takes to solidify a loving base within yourself. And accept that you may continue to tilt toward anxiety, because that is part of a sensitive person’s wiring. It’s part of the deal, and it can be a beautiful part!
*footnote on addictions: a lot of supersensitive people fall into that trap in an attempt to anesthetize pain that enters their lives due to their sensitivity. Addictions are numbing. Unfortunately, over time the brain becomes “rewired” by substance abuse, creating a hard trap to exit.
*footnote on childhood: sometimes sensitive children get punished for acting-out, when they are just being tension barometers and don’t have the frontal-lobe development to verbalize or understand their own distress. They become distressing and part of the tension load: therapy helps. I’m biased, but beating the child or beating oneself or taking a mud-bath in shame or making it be all about the child, or all about oneself, doesn’t work. Mostly, child stuff is nature-nurture: your child’s wiring plus the stress load, and the parenting skills, within the family. Family includes (blood or non-blood) grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc because it surely takes at least a village to consciously raise a child.
Thanks to my wonderful Australian Latin teacher in HS, who put up with me breaking on my tongue her treasured language for four painful years, much pain for both of us, I am appreciating the word “convalesce”. Con (with) + valere (to wish well, hale, healthy) = convalesce, which is a much neglected concept in our culture. Yes, we associate it with people getting over a long illness, but even then we (I’m using the macro ‘we’) tend to be impatient about it—whether it’s our own illness or someone else’s. The concept of emotional convalescence gets short shrift, indeed. However: profound emotions use a lot of energy. (Sorrowfully, not calories). They wipe us out, deeply, both physically and psychologically, and convalescence is necessary. It may not be possible while in the midst of crisis—but at some point ‘the tab comes due’.
Ours is a tough culture. It is “innocent of knowledge” (phrase Gandhi used when he didn’t know something) about the toll of emotional travail. We struggle for credibility with invisible illnesses, and so many are (cancer, IBS, slipped disc, etc). Imagine our lack of credibility when we are in emotional travail! Blood running down the chest gains sympathy; broken limbs will do, as well. Emotional suffering is brushed aside with platitudes (what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; just think of happy things; aren’t you over that yet??) How are we going to take care of ourselves if we are trained away from even being aware of the systemic toll that our bodies pay when we are drenched in tough emotions? Contemplate (or shrink from) the clench of fear, the fierce, scorching flames of anxiety; the life-sucking ‘black hole’ of depression; the literal heart-pain that accompanies the agony of loss… These things take energy! Recovering from emotional suffering is as daunting and time consuming as recovering from a tough illness.
Our emotions, be they ever so tough at times, are what make life worthwhile. We interpret the world through our feelings, and this goes on all the time. As written in the preceding blog, we may be immeasurably deepened by our journey in the emotional realm. “Happy” is lovely; I love feeling that way—along with contented, at ease, comfortable, loved and loving. “Ease” unfolds her gossamer gowns, and we fall back on the grass/ couch/ bed in a rapture of relief. No need to convalesce after enjoying these delicious emotions! But life is not made of relaxation and “Happy” is a false god to worship—in spite of the millions spent in advertising to promote it. We don’t dig deeply into ourselves, find our mettle, call forth amazing capacity, unless we are challenged to do so. And Life is guaranteed to provide that challenge for everyone, one way or another.
Digging deep, and sometimes simply surviving the tough stuff, is exhausting work. Picture a miner chipping rock deep underground. The passage is narrow, the press of immense weight is felt on all sides. When the torch flickers, shadows dance strangely on the walls and if the torch goes out: utter darkness. All of us, rich and poor, here and on the other side of the world, will have such passages in our lives and we will be emotionally stretched to the breaking point, and hopefully not past it. Then we need to convalesce. An important process goes on during emotional convalescence, and that is the integration of new material about self—along with regaining physical strength.
What does emotional convalescence look like? Well, it looks the same as that which is needed after physical illness: rest. Eat easy-to-digest foods, handle self gently, increase exposure to nature, reduce exposure to toxins and stressors and, in general, bunker in. It requires patience with Self (we can get so impatient, can’t we?). A long stretch of anxiety, or coming out of an intensely anxious situation, asks of us that we consider our entire ecosystem (body, mind, emotions, spirit) and adjust our behavior accordingly. If you have safe (be they clueless) others in your life, you may want to USE YOUR WORDS to let them know what you need. It is so disappointing that mind-reading is not part of the human package! So in-gather your potency by asking for what you need. Post a “handle with care” sticker on your forehead. Remember that speaking about what you have been through, and how you are feeling, is part of convalescing. Timing is everything, so pick a time when your peeps are not, themselves, super stressed.
Emotional convalescence enables us to recover our physical, mental and emotional strength—because ALL of them take a hit when we go through travail. May you have safe and loving people in your life who welcome your words and support the "aftermath": your need to convalesce.
Here is a lovely quote credited to Marcus Aurelius, a wise (and yet flawed) man of ancient Rome: “There is nowhere that a man can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind ... So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself." That’s what Anxiety Soothers is all about: developing resources within yourself so that you can experience a rich, full life even as you flow with and adapt to myriad changing circumstances.
However, along with the very personal struggle each of us has (and shares, believe me, with many others), we are imbedded in a much greater world of supreme suffering. Yes, it is rife with beauty, love, courage, generosity, heroism, humor, creativity, miraculous synchronicity and every kind of amazing thing. But it also contains immense pain and so many forms of suffering that it takes away the breath. And that’s not useful, because we really need to be breathing—especially the long exhalations that soothe the system.
A Buddhist gardener (long story) once simply and sincerely said to me, “but don’t you know, Jeremy? Suffering is the tool that carves the cup deeper so it can hold more light and love!” Wow. Here it is, more than three decades later, and those words remain tattooed across my soul. And I have often had cause to reflect on the ‘deepening’ effect of various forms of personal suffering, and sometimes, it is true, I arrive at a place where I find myself saying “thank you!” for a life experience that anyone would agree is perfectly beastly and no one would ever voluntarily sign up for. I’m not saying I get there regularly, but now and then…
The gardener spoke that line as if it was as real to him as the sun in the sky, and I find it immensely comforting. “Suffering is the tool that carves the cup deeper so it can hold more light and love”.Yes. But also it is a bit ‘macro’ compared to in-your-face awareness of child slavery, war, and other cruelties. So while I am quite glad to share that line with you, and hope you will let it work its magic in you, I also want to tell you about a beautiful book by Jane Goodall: A Prayer for World Peace. I felt great solace when I read this, because while the terrible things are named—no ducking, no denial—the prayer is both grounded and transcendent. This $15 non-denominational book is beautifully illustrated by Iranian artist Feeroozeh Golmohammadi. When words are not enough, because they are puny and representational and can’t possible express life’s depth and breadth, art steps in and supplies the rest.
Suffering is the tool that carves the cup deeper so it can hold more light and love. Are you being carved? Have you been? What have you found out about yourself in this painful process? Can you endure more than you thought? Are you actually, gasp, brave? A wish: may you not suffer; may you be free from pain. And, when you experience pain, may you know it is shared and let it deepen your compassion for yourself and others.
Hypothetical situation: My boss snaps at me. I am hurt and taken aback. I am also irritated, but I cannot express that because it is, after all, my boss. Most of all, I am now anxious. Is it me? This is such a destabilizing and yet important question. I want to sort this out quickly because my rocketing anxiety makes it hard to think clearly. Did I behave offensively? I might have been out of line. It can happen. I might be off track for any number of reasons. I’m only human. Because this is important, I decide to journal about it, hoping to get some clarity, and maybe I’ll talk it over with a friend. I wonder if this is a good time to call my old therapist? My job is important and I don’t want to blow it.
Yet also, I don’t want to assume it is me. It might be wise to take an observant look at my boss. Has s/he ever snapped at anyone else? Does he/she have an irritable streak, a history of barking at people? Do I happen to know that s/he is under a lot of strain due to the job, a divorce, a child in jail, in hospital…? Bottom line: is this a boss who triumphs in putting others down, or someone who really cares about worker well-being?
If my observations tell me that this is a ‘safe’ boss, I might mildly say to him/her: “Yesterday, in the hall, I heard you say in a sharp tone of voice, ‘Well, step it up!!’ Can we talk about this? I’d like to understand what I am doing that is not working for you. I’d like to clear the air between us.” That would be a grown-up approach, right? People have these conversations, and all that is necessary is courage and a modicum of faith that the other person is generally reasonable—that the other person is, in fact, able to come from a developed place.
However, some bosses are bullies, and bullies are not safe people with whom to be vulnerable. Bullies are unable to have this kind of sensible conversation because, emotionally, bullies are still back in grade school feeling big by making others feel small. If I identify that my boss is a bully, based on observations of behavior or reliable report, then I am FREE to (silently) shout, “It is NOT about me!” I can lean into this Recovery Movement saying: I didn’t cause it. I can’t fix it. It’s not about me. How delightful! Once I’ve realized that, I can calm my anxious inner voice by (silently) chanting, “I didn’t cause it. I can’t fix it. It’s not about me.” My goal then becomes to STOP taking it personally and just slide away. Q-TIP (another Recovery acronym) might apply: Quit Taking It Personally!
Both these snippets from the Recovery Movement may also be useful when thinking of dastardly deeds by friends and relatives. People act out pain in hurtful ways, and everybody has pain. All blessings to those of us who strive (not spectacularly successfully) to own our behavior without hurting others! Yet “not hurting others” can’t be a life goal because, duh, you might not love the person who loves you, and you cannot avoid hurting him or her by kindly and truthfully letting them know that their desires are not reciprocated. If we are truly being ourselves, we are going to disappoint others All. The. Time. People’s tender feelings will be hurt.
Like mine, right now, because the boss snapped at me and I didn’t do anything to merit that. I have journaled, talked it over with a friend, and had a quick phone session with my therapist. I ‘get it’ as best I can: we have all been under a lot of pressure in the workplace, and irritation tends to trickle downhill. I’ve been distracted by a couple of health issues in the family, so I haven’t been at my best. My boss isn’t a bully, but she also doesn’t suffer fools gladly. I’ve asked for five minutes of her time and will use the DEAR MAN formula, from DBT, to get the most from those five minutes. I’m still anxious because this is not an even playing field (i.e., my boss has power over me) and I don’t have an angel of God standing before me, promising everything will be fine. But also, I feel stabilized by talking over the situation and developing an “action plan”. I think this will work out.
* DBT stands for Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Google “DBT Dear Man” to look at/ download this helpful guide to structuring difficult conversations.
Here is a drawing of the body with information about how different parts of it may experience anxiety. The caveat is, of course, that some symptoms may indicate a medical condition and so we must not ignore symptoms (“Oh, this is just me being anxious!”) without consulting a physician. On the other hand, once we have consulted a physician and been told, “You are fine!”, it can be immensely comforting to use the phrase, “this is just me being anxious.” After all, these are common symptoms. Although the misery of anxiety feels isolating, we are sharing a common experience with so many other people. Behind a composed façade, you never know who around you is suffering in the same way.
Why not print out this drawing? You can circle the words that apply to your experience of anxiety, and color in the corresponding places. Tangibly interacting with this drawing helps develop a sense of ‘ownership’ of your experience, as opposed to denial and flight. Truth is both comforting and a good starting point in the journey toward soothing anxiety. “I have anxiety, and this is where I feel it in my body and how I experience it in my head.” No big deal: just a statement of fact.
We get really squirrely when anxiety combines with being afraid of anxiety. That boosts the cortisol cascade (ewww!) in the body, creating a double wallop. Plus, we can’t really run away from Self, right? Well, we can….alcohol, drugs, food, self injury… but none of that addresses anxiety in a sustainable way. Accept and forgive yourself for having a naturally vulnerable ecosystem, and get to work developing emotional muscle via practicing with visualizations, activities and body cues.
My favorite thing about the floor is that I cannot fall off of it. Isn’t that great? Anyone: if a major grief sweeps through you, go for the floor. Then you can roll around, flail, tear at your clothing and sob great gulping wet tears, and you are still safe! Yes, in a movie you will see actresses prettily fling themselves onto a bed to have a good howl—but they are acting. Real grief is best done on the floor. This is just an opinion, and we all have our own, but check it out.
A floor can be quite nice for extreme anxiety, too. There you lie, mouth dry, chest pounding, fingers clinched, and you are receiving the most reliable support you can get. Sure, it is hard on the bones and you might want to drag a pillow and a blanket down there with you. But you are supported. You don’t have to worry about falling, and that—along with loud noises—is a fear present from infancy. So enjoy the floor and check out what else is around. Is there a cat padding over, interested in curling up on your head? Are you about to receive a big, sloppy kiss from your dog? Animals get interested when we are down on the floor.
Floors help us get grounded. It’s a good place to be while you tell yourself what feels like the truth. “I’m freaking out! I’m scared! This anxiety is killing me!” Oh, that’s not the truth? Harrumph! Actually that’s just the Anxiety Narrative: what it feels like, versus what is actually happening. You are not actually dying from anxiety right now. (*See last paragraph.) Breathe. Pucker your lips as if you are blowing through a narrow straw as you exhale, nice and slow. It probably does not yet feel “nice”, but keep doing it.
Now tell yourself the ‘real’ truth. Example: “I’m overwhelmed; I don’t think I can keep caring for mother while I’m working and raising two small children; I need to get help! My body is telling me that this is too much: I need help.” Whatever the problem, that last sentence is key. “My body is telling me that I need help. It is registering my distress. I’m going to rest here for a bit, and then I’m going to call the Crisis Hotline //my brother //a friend //my minister //a therapist—and I’m going to ask for help. I’m going to listen to what my body is telling me!”
Consider your dear Body. It works for you all the time, doing its best in spite of being ignored and put through the mill. And how can it communicate with you, other than through sensation? That’s why getting grounded involves returning to the senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. So you are on the floor. Feel it against your back? What color is the ceiling? How many cobwebs in the corners? Turn your head and count colors. How many do you see? What is the predominant aroma? Wet dog? Old beer? Baby powder? Just observe all this without judging it: relax into taking in your surroundings. If you are seeing a lot of grubbiness, welcome to the crowd. It’s hard to keep up with housekeeping when you are stressed, unless your anxiety expresses itself in obsessive cleaning. If you aren’t seeing much color, what about that? Do you have a favorite color? How about sprinkling it around?
Have you been able to nest in your current space? It doesn’t require a big budget—just attention to what you enjoy. For me color is important; it really lifts me up or drops me down. Also shapes: I love breaking up the boxiness of rooms by adding rounded shapes. Ahh! But scent is apparently our most primal sense—and unless you live above a skunk sanctuary, it is pretty easy to address. Go to a health food store and sniff the essential oils til you find what you really like, and then use that scent in your space. I know, so many of us are sharing space and hemmed in by life events. Yet small moments of pleasure, even joy, may press the reset button within and soothe the anxious system.
*Health Caveat: I trust that you have had a physical: that is part of taking care of your body. Even appalling health care plans generally cover preventive care for free, so take the time to rule-out physical issues. This is especially important because panic attacks can feel like heart attacks. Here is a rule of thumb, affirmed by three doctors: if you can gallop up a flight of stairs, it is unlikely to be a heart event. During an actual heart event, moving the muscles calls for oxygen that the troubled heart is not able to supply. So vigorous movement causes symptoms to immediately amplify, with uber discomfort and difficulty breathing. I can’t tell you how many times I have galloped up a flight of stairs and then patted my chest with relief: Ahh!
I welcome your helpful suggestions and while I'll appreciate all of them, I will post the ones that seem particularly useful. Thank you!
Anxiety and the Digestion
Anxiety's Fraternal Twin,
Anxiety & an Odd Bit of
Anxiety and Self-Care
Anxiety and Tenderness
Elasticize Your Mind
Good Things Journal
How to Make Anxiety
The Intelligence of
KISS = Keep it Simple,
The Nature of Soothing
Out of Control
The Personal Trampoline
Scary! Or just Goofy