We live in a fast-changing world of political, economic, technological and climate change and uncertainty, so it’s no wonder we experience anxiety. Whether this is about the latest pandemic, declining public services, or job losses, there’s plenty to worry about.
Although related, fear and anxiety are not exactly the same. Fear is an appropriate response to an immediate threat and has always been critical for survival. A snake suddenly appears on the path and we directly experience fear. Anxiety tends to be indirect and is often about anticipating a future threat, which may, or may not occur.
One of the reasons why anxiety is so easily triggered is that our brains evolved to prioritise threat and survival needs over more pleasant experiences. This in-built bias means that we use more internal resources, including how we store events in memory, to process threats than more pleasant experiences. Like other emotions, anxiety includes physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. For instance, when we’re anxious we may have sweaty palms, muscle tension, “butterflies” in the stomach, experience worrying thoughts, feel nervous and panicky and avoid situations that make us feel anxious.
At the base of the brain, there’s an area called the amygdala that’s involved in memory, decision-making and emotional reaction. The amygdala learns to associate sights, sounds, smells and touch with a threat and triggers the systems for the flight, fight or freeze response; raising blood pressure and releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisone. For good reasons, the amygdala reacts very quickly, way before we fully process and think about what’s happening. Unfortunately, the amygdala is about as intelligent as a smoke alarm. When there’s an actual fire we’re pleased it worked, but when it’s too sensitive and goes off every time we burn the toast, it’s annoying and can disturb our health and wellbeing. Interestingly, imagined as well as real threats can trigger the amygdala, which is like the smoke alarm going off in your kitchen every time you have a worrying thought. Interestingly, a study that measured physical changes in the brain of people who meditated daily found that their amygdala decreased in size.
Like other emotions, anxiety emerges, plays-out and dissolves after a while. It also operates on a continuum, from mild to high levels. We experience mild anxiety almost every day; if it looks as if the train may be delayed, or a cake we’re baking may not rise properly, for example.
However real or imagined, there are ways that we can work with anxiety to live easier and more productive lives, free from the negative limitations that anxiety can impose. The first step is to notice that anxiety is present, by being open and aware of our feelings and physical sensations in the moment.
If you notice anxiety, try exploring what you’re experiencing by asking:
- Would it be natural to feel anxious in this situation?
- What is this feeling telling me?
- Is this feeling useful – or is it a false alarm?
- Where am I feeling this in my body?
- What anxious thoughts am I entertaining?
- Am I starting to worry, rather than problem-solve?
However valid the anxiety may feel, you can allow and embrace the feelings and thoughts that are already here in this moment; without judgement or self-criticism; seeing thoughts as just mental events and bringing kindness and self-compassion. If the feelings and thoughts are not serving you, let go of holding onto them, so they take their natural course and dissolve. And if all else fails, try asking yourself, “What problems do I have in this moment?” and see what difference that makes.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice; play the poem and then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice to explore working with anxiety and finding stability and balance, free from the negative limitations that anxiety can bring.
Suggested weekly practice
- Become aware of and acknowledge anxiety as it arises and check whether this is useful or a false alarm; is there a real fire or has the smoke alarm gone off because of some burnt toast?
- Use curiosity to explore the interplay between sensations, anxious feelings and worrying thoughts and see what insights emerge.
- There are many occasions where it’s normal to feel a bit of anxiety, like speaking in public for instance. When you experience anxiety in situations like this, tell yourself that it’s normal to feel this way and that you can use the energy to your advantage.