Way, way, wáy earlier this year, I wrote about some of my intentions for the year ahead. One of those intentions was to “fall in love with fear”. From the onset I knew that transforming my relationship to fear was easier said than done. At the point of writing my intentions, my panic attacks were still a regular occurrence. When your relationship with fear gets so bad that you even become afraid of it, it is already difficult to get yourself out of those feelings of terror and dread. Loving the fear instead, then, seems rather impossible.
Love is a big word, and one that we don’t often conflate with the things that make us feel scared and uncomfortable. Our initial reaction to pain and fear is always to push it away, not to embrace it. It takes a lot of spiritual growth or nihilism, perhaps, to deal with feelings, thoughts or sensations that are unpleasant. It’s endless work.
Yet somehow my panic attacks have been appearing less often these days. So somewhere in these past months, I must have been doing something right. Let’s get this straight: I am not going to pretend even for a second that I’ve got it all figured out. I’m still a terribly flawed and anxious human being. And that’s okay.
But I have started to get to know my fear and anxiety. I’ve started to recognise the shapes it takes, the things it does to my body and the things it says to me late at night, when I’m trying to get to sleep. I’ve started to recognise my fear as something external to me, a visitor who comes and goes on moments when my defences are low. I may be an easy target for my fear, but I am not my fear. This is something I’ve learned.
I am still far from considering this irksome visitor as a friend, but I’m getting used to its presence from time to time. And that’s a start. For anyone who is on a similar journey, below are some tips that have helped me in dealing with my anxiety:
Breathing in pain and fear
If you feel really anxious or even have a panic attack, it helps to focus on your breath. For example, deep belly breathing helps to calm the heart rate in the case of acute stress. Other people advocate for the 4-7-8 breath, and I personally really benefit from alternative nostril breathing. Want something a bit more challenging? This exercise from Joanna Macy’s “Work that Reconnects” has been a massive eyeopener for me. It goes a step further than other exercises and calls for actively breathing in and through the pain and fear. Where most well-intended breathing exercises rather focus on breathing out and letting go of pain, the Breathing Through exercise asks you to let all the sorrow pass through you, to embrace it and give it space. Though it may seem counterintuitive to invite all the bad stuff in, it’s actually the first step to healing and acceptance of pain. As the Buddhists say, it’s not pain that makes us feel bad, it’s our attachment to it that creates the suffering.
Letting the fear speak
Another way of reaching a point of acceptance of pain is to allow the fear to speak. You can do this by journaling down your thoughts, or imagine having a talk with your fear. First welcome it, by acknowledging its presence and talking to it as if it’s a friend in need. You can say to yourself: “Hi there, I see you have something to say and I want you to know that I’m here to listen.” Make sure you really listen to whatever arises in you. Try to let it be there. In my own experience, my anxiety is often a manifestation of unexpressed thoughts. And my anxiety gets even worse if I tell myself that it’s not “supposed” to be there. But you have to trust that your anxiety is there for a reason, and it has something to say. Maybe it’s trying to tell you that something isn’t right for you, as was the case with my PhD. Or, alternatively, it’s telling you that something is exactly right for you, but something else is holding you back. There are many possible answers. You just have to listen.
Meditating and visualising
Underlying the two tips above is the one tip that rules them all: meditate. And I don’t mean “sit still and be enlightened”, but try to have a presence of awareness with everything that comes up. There are so many ways you can meditate, and you just have to find out what feels right for you personally. I’ve found that a consistent meditation practice has helped me immensely, but for me that doesn’t mean sitting on my meditation cushion all the time. Yin yoga has been my preferred meditation practice of lately. Alternatively, I like using guided meditations. Online you can find many resources for all kinds of meditations, such as this one that I like to do just before I’m boarding a flight. I also really like the guided meditations of Tara Brach.
When you get too stuck in your head, moving your body might be one of the best solutions. It can be as simple as going for a twenty minute walk in nature. Over the past year, I have discovered bouldering (indoor rock climbing) as a new way to move my body. Even though I never used to be much of a sports person, I now find that the combination of different forms of exercise helps me to get out of my head. Studies have shown that regular exercise can help reduce the effects of anxiety. Moving your body releases endorphins in your brain and can help burn the excess cortisol that gets stuck in your body. It’s all just a matter of finding the right type of physical activity for you, whether that’s salsa dancing, swimming, or sailing.
Confide in friends and share
Most people like to share what’s on their minds with the people they love. Yet it can be really scary to talk about our deepest fears. When I was at the peak moment of trying to deal with my anxiety, I realised that not only did I not talk much about my anxiety to my friends in general, I also didn’t share the specific things that were on my mind and the issues I struggled with in my specific relationships. From that time onwards I have been much more open and honest about my feelings. This has given me a bigger sense of belonging and the feeling that I am okay the way I am. In addition, talking to my friends about my anxiety makes me feel less alone. It turns out that many people feel scared every now and then. And knowing that other people also feel tense in their bodies sometimes, has helped me in accepting my own bodily sensations.
Protect your energy
Sometimes the anxiety I feel is not mine. As a highly sensitive person I tend to absorb the emotions of people around me. This means that the anxious energy of others can sometimes become a part of my own energy. In such cases it helps to stay close to myself and shut myself off of any external stimuli. I try to ground myself and make a mental note that I can let go of everything that is not mine. It sometimes helps to focus my awareness on my feet and to feel the contact with the floor. Or I imagine a bubble around me that protects me from the outside world. Even if absorbing other’s emotions seems foreign to you, protecting your energy can be useful to prevent further aggravation. For example, when I am afraid during a flight, I put on my eye mask and headphones and play my favourite music to calm me down. This really helps me to get back in touch with my own inner world.
Get some help from nature
I do not like the idea of using medication myself, although I do see the merit of it for other people. However, if all else fails, you can always choose to get by with a little help from your herbal friends. Personally, I have experienced great results by taking a capsule of ashwagandha every day. Ashwagandha is a herb that has traditionally been used in India. It is said to reduce cortisol levels because of its adaptogenic function, meaning that they help regulate your stress hormones. Other natural remedies to anxiety include ginseng, valerian, and good old chamomile. For topical use, I recommend lavender and vetiver essential oils. According to a recent study, the use of lavender essential oils to help with anxiety is “a reasonable alternative [treatment] to consider in patients with anxiety disorder”. Also, make sure you get plenty of vitamins by eating a plant-based diet.
I’m always looking for more things to try out. What is your number one tip for dealing with anxiety? Let me know in the comments below!