Ok, so welcome to the third video in this ‘How to Handle Anxiety’ mini-course.
In this video we are going to have a look at turning towards our anxiety and have a look at how to soothe our nerves, the idea of nurture and self-care and how important that is and actually we have a nurture system that can switch off our fight or flight anxiety system so we’ll explore that. And we’ll have a look at sources of anxiety from earlier experiences and having a look at a way in which we can connect with that part of us, that inner child perhaps, or that younger part of us. And then finish off with the idea of being safe enough. So turning towards anxiety.
Having panic attacks and anxiety is a horrible experience. I know that first-hand – panics that I had on the train, at work, at home. You know the experience of wanting to get out of rooms, feeling like you’ve got to try and soothe yourself, even standing in the garden at 3 in the morning.
I’ve been there and these are horrible feelings and so it’s understandable that we want to try and avoid them. The problem with that is it sets up an inner conflict. Our system is trying to gear up so that we can escape whatever the threat is, and we don’t like the feelings so we’re trying to control them and we’re trying to manage them and so the feelings then increase and then we start feeling anxious about the sensations that are building and you can see that’s then going to create this increasing anxiety experience.
So what we talking about here is turning towards the actual anxiety, seeing it as part of us that’s trying to look after us – it’s trying to keep us safe, so rather than fighting with it, can we allow it to do its thing. The first thing to do is to allow the sensations to rise, the feelings, just allow them to do their thing and actually start to move, so in opening ourselves, relaxing into the experience, obviously not feeling relaxed but opening and allowing the sensations to do their thing they’ll start moving. And want we want to do is, we want to notice them building, notice them doing their thing without reacting, without tensing up without trying to suppress them, without trying to escape.
And then what we can do, we can notice that maybe it will rise and then it will fall. So we’re moving through the anxiety experience. If you can think about having a pain in the body, maybe a stomach ache, or an ache in your leg – Then we can notice it. It doesn’t feel like it’s ‘us’, it feels like it’s a part of us and we can actually notice the pain maybe building, we can notice staying with it and then it dissipating over time.
If we can do that same thing with our experience of anxiety then we’ve got a degree of separation – we’re not in it. It’s not taking us over – we’re noticing it. So if we allow it to do it’s thing, actually our nervous system will start to express the built up tension.
And you know what I’m talking about here in allowing this sort of feeling to rise, do its thing and then to move through us – there’s a really good book by Dr Claire Weekes it was the book that I first found on my own anxiety journey that I read through all in one go because I was desperate for explanations for what was going on in my body and what was this anxiety that was so overwhelming.
I’ve got a link to that in the resources that I’ll be uploading on to the website as part of this course. And you know, there are other things that we can do just to soothe our nerves. Basic things that you probably already know in terms of health and wellbeing, sleep, the food we eat, exercise. Not putting unnecessary pressure on yourself, saying no to certain things.
These can give our nervous system a chance to maybe just settle a bit and if there’s been a really difficult experience and we’ve been taken to the point of nervous overwhelm, then it’s a bit like a physical injury – it is going to need to take some time to settle so the idea of resting, if you’ve strained your ankle or something like that, you wouldn’t expect to be able to just go back to exactly what you were doing previously without giving it some time just to heal, so the same applies to our nerves.
One of the things that we can do is to activate our nurture system. We’ve basically got three branches to our nervous system. We’ve got our fight-or-flight system that we’ve talked about and that’s our first go to in terms of feeling threatened or stressed. And a reward system that produces different chemicals, when we’re achieving something, and the satisfaction of achieving something and we also have a nurture system that produces oxytocin, like a mother with a child when they are connecting and bonding, that’s releasing oxytocin – that’s out nurture system and we can only really be one system at any one time.
So if we’re promoting nurture, that will automatically start to switch off the fight or flight system. So I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the ASMR videos on YouTube – what they’re doing there is they are mimicking that ‘nurture’ that is built into our nervous system, so there will be soothing voices and gentle calming movements of hands, and this is something that we can we can promote ourselves, wrapping nice cosy scarves around us, feeling warm, having warm baths and even down to the way that our nervous system runs through our body (the polyvagal system), we can actually switch on the ‘nurture’ by things like touching your neck and your face, these sorts of things will switch on the nervous system for soothing, rather than fight or flight.
Ok, so at certain times of the day we’re going to feel more anxious than others, it seems to be that mornings can be difficult. We seem to wake up and then maybe we ramp up and start to feel anxious about the day ahead so we need to be mindful of that and not fight it, but let it just do its thing and then move through us.
We need to prioritise some quiet time and putting boundaries in place and saying ‘no’. Also the importance of balance, our society is all about taking things to the max, being the best of whatever it is, but actually Nature and the most sustainable way of being is when things are in balance. And we need to do that with our lives as well.
Balancing the time that we dedicate to work, the time we dedicate to family and friends and the time that we dedicate to ourselves, so balance is going to be really important. The thing that we can do, rather than giving ourselves ‘nurture’ is we can do ‘self-medicating’ which are things like alcohol and caffeine and maybe going to the gym too much.
These are all actually coping mechanisms to give us some short-term relief but they’re not balanced. They’re not going to give us the longer term calming that we need. Alcohol in particular is something that reduces anxiety in that moment but then the next day it comes back twice as worse because we’re tired and the by-products cause further problems. So this idea of feeling held and feeling safe and how do we signal that to the body is paramount.
So if we can signal that through feeling ‘cosy’, feeling warm, feeling that we’re attending to ourselves in a compassionate way, then that’s going to be the better approach rather than fighting with anxiety. Ok, so anxiety can have its roots in difficulties earlier in our life, so I mentioned in the first video that I was sent to boarding school when I was 7, that can be a difficult experience where, in our early years our nervous system is gearing up to decide ‘am I safe?” in the world or not, and if whatever reason we don’t feel safe, we’ve experienced some difficulty even like your parents separating, things like that, then we may develop a wariness about life that is going to result in us trying to feel safe through certain coping mechanisms, like avoiding standing out from the crowd, wanting to be seen to be good at everything that we do, avoiding conflict, saying yes to everybody, and these things can be coping mechanisms, but they can cause us problems later in life.
We’ve got busy lives, as I had in my 30s, and we can’t maintain all these coping mechanisms and then we start to feel overwhelmed and that’s when the anxiety can start to break through. And we can judge ourselves, we feel that we should be able to do more well the reality is that actually these things are too much for that particular moment and actually to be more gentle with ourselves and to say, “Ok, I can’t deal with that at this moment” is actually an expression of self care and nurture. So what this particular approach can do is that we turn towards the part of us that is still feeling that situations are scary and like this picture here, it’s got the adult holding the hand of the child.
This can be a useful way in which we can maybe turn to the scared part of us and bring that quality of nurture and presence of ‘I’m here with you.’ ‘This is ok.’ ‘This is safe enough’. When we do that actually what can happen is we free up some of the playful energy that is kind of locked into that scared part of us.
So this is an exercise that you can try yourself, if it’s relevant. I’ll do a separate video with this as a download as well, so that you can practise it with me talking you through it. But what the process here would be is that you identify a time or event that was difficult in your past, could be something in your teens or your 20’s and you imagine taking yourself, the present you back to that time and to just been with them.
Just saying “I’m here”. Maybe closing your eyes, visualising just sitting next to them, that younger self, – where the difficulty was experienced and just give them some reassurance. Yeah, just taking their hand, a hug, Just a kind of internal voice, saying “I’m here, it’s ok”. To begin with it’s going to feel weird, it might be something that feels overwhelming and if that’s the case it would be better to do it with a therapist where you can do it in a safe space.
Over time you are creating this connection and then what we can do is before a triggering situation, perhaps going to visit a difficult parent or going into a situation like an interview or something where the anxiety starts to build, we can do this ‘inner connecting’ first of all, this ‘inner bonding’ and create that sense of mature presence with that younger part of us, so it settles the nervous system before we go into the situation.
So the last point here around ‘safe enough’ is that the reality to life is that we don’t get guarantees that something is going to be 100-percent safe. We wouldn’t cross the road if that was the case. There’s always an element of risk in life, but actually we can say to ourselves that something is ‘safe enough’, so that we can engage with it.
So we’re watching our thoughts and when we’re anxious they can be heightened in terms of fear of risks, so we’re watching our thoughts and saying “actually this is safe enough”, whatever the situation is. We’re looking out for catastrophising, where we’re panicking about a worst case scenario, what if something catastrophic happens, and we’re just bringing some reason to that part of us that’s panicking and thinking thoughts that the worst is going to happen.
We can also get into patterns of generalising “because this happened here, it’s always going to happen” but that’s not necessarily the case. ‘Deleting’ is where maybe we’re ignoring examples that are contrary to our fears. “Well, actually last time was ok, the time before was a bit scary but generally speaking, things are ok”, and ‘distorting’ is where we take something and put it out of proportion, eg. because one person doesn’t like us, doesn’t mean that everybody doesn’t like us!
So we’re reminding ourselves that it’s ‘safe enough’. The last point here, letting go of safety, ‘white feathers’ actually comes from the film Dumbo, he thinks he can fly because he’s holding a white feather and then he realises he’s just doing his thing and nearly drops out of the sky but he could actually always fly. He didn’t need that safety behaviour.
So gradually letting go of these white feathers gives us more freedom. Ok so we’ve covered the idea of turning towards anxiety, and soothing our nerves. The importance of nurture and how that really works positively with our nervous system. And an exercise for reconnecting to our younger selves and the idea of being ‘safe enough’. In the next video we’ll have a look at the importance of what we put our attention on and also going to have a look at mindfulness and detachment from situations and events and then we can have a look at the practice of centering and grounding.