Ok, so welcome to the fourth video in this “How to handle anxiety” online mini-course.
In this video I’m going to have a look at the topic of attention, and what we do with our attention. The idea that what we put our attention on grows. How we can use our attention more mindfully and how we can detach from obsessing about future worries, putting our attention too much on the symptoms that we might be experiencing, and also move on to some practices that can help to bring us back into the present moment, so we’ll have a look at centering and grounding.
So, what we put our attention on grows. So the idea here is that, the thing about anxiety is once we get some symptoms starting to come up for us, whether it’s palpitations, whether it’s starting to feel a shortness of breath, then we start focusing on that even more. It’s the fear of these symptoms, “what’s happening now?” “Is this going to come up for me” – that actually starts to create this negative loop because we start to tune into every sensation with an aspect of apprehension and fear.
So this can then also mean that we start to avoid situations and circumstances, which are going to generate the symptoms. And all our emphasis is on the symptoms of anxiety and what triggers it. So this becomes a growing focus for us and starts to take up most of our attention. So then we can start tuning into our thoughts because if we start to go down an anxiety route then our thoughts will start to become more fear based and we start to monitor what we’re thinking about.
If we are thinking about anxiety topics, that keeps our attention so we’re fuelling it even further. And then we’ve got avoidance behaviours that we’re trying to do in order to escape the difficult sensations, and we start tuning in to that as well.
So it’s like well, can’t go there because I might feel the anxiety, I can’t go to this event or situation, and our world starts to shrink down, so our comfort zone is reduced and our hypervigilance is raised.
Our attention is like our torch – it’s what we start to focus on. Do we put our torch of awareness on anxiety and the symptoms? Do we notice that that’s going on, but it doesn’t dominate our attention? We can still let other things in to our experience. One of the things we can do is rather than get caught up in it, similar to what I was talking about in terms of noticing sensations rising and falling; we can actually, with our awareness, we can stay slightly separate from the experience.
So this the detachment, so we can observe what’s going on, such as the sensations; we can even observe the quality of our thinking. “Oh, I’m noticing that my thinking is starting to get quite panicky, I’m starting to ruminate, to worry about the future” and of course that is what anxiety is about essentially.
It’s having this future-focused fear that something coming down the line is going to feel threatening. So what we need to do is to find ways in which we can bring our attention back into the present moment. The present moment, by and large, is “safe enough”.
Being in the present moment is where our body always is. So if we align our attention back with the body in the present moment then hopefully things will start to settle. So, a nice exercise here which comes out of the whole area of mindfulness. This is the book that I’d recommend you have a look at Mindfulness by Mark Williams, so this exercise, the 3 minute check-in, is a really nice way to have a short way to just re-gather ourselves and bring ourselves back into the present moment The way it works is that the egg timer is a useful image to work with.
Let’s just say you’re in the office for example and being very busy and feeling quite stressed and anxiety levels might be a starting to rise. Then we create a little bit of a space, a 3-minute check-in and you could have a post-it on your laptop or PC, just to remind you.
So what you do is for the first minute, you just check in with what’s going on for yourself so either by closing your eyes, or if that’s awkward to do that, you can just relax into more of an aware state of just checking in with yourself.
What’s going on at this moment in time? What’s the quality of my thinking like? What am I focusing on? Then noticing feelings. So what feelings are going on? Yep, maybe there’s some worry, I’m getting anxious about something coming up shortly, like a meeting. And then we tune into the body and we notice perhaps where we might be holding tension – in the shoulders or our breathing is a bit shallow, so that’s the top bit of the egg timer there.
So then what we want to do is go to the narrow part. So we’re bringing our attention into just focusing on one thing. We can maybe focus on just our feet on the ground a sense of being present and our weight being held by the chair we are in. Or we can focus maybe just on our breathing. A nice thing to do is just put your hands on your tummy area or the belly.
Just noticing breathing in that lower belly area, so it just lifts our hands up and down. That brings about a relaxation response, because when we’re breathing in that lower abdominal space, we can get this soothing that happens through the body – it’s a bit like a baby breathing. So just breathing for a minute. Just focusing on that, and then gradually bring your awareness back to the surroundings.
So this is where we can start to open up our awareness again. We’re holding on to that quality of groundedness or centeredness with our breathing and then just gently starting to open up our awareness to maybe the sounds around us, the people talking or the birds outside. Just bring your awareness back to the surroundings, whilst maintaining that quality of being more centred and grounded. So I’m going to put this as a separate exercise on the course structure on my website.
The next thing we can do is to continue that process of centering and grounding, whenever you’ve got a moment. You can do it standing up or sitting down. So we did the belly breathing This is a really good technique for calming the nervous system. So we’ve already done the belly breathing, just almost feeling like we’re breathing into that lower space.
Just lifting the hands gently, and you might notice that things start to calm and settle. And that brings our attention away from being quite top-heavy. With anxiety, it can feel like we’re very much in our head, we’re up here and our breath is quite restricted and we’ve got this shallow breathing. So that centering down into this lower area gives us a bit more of a centred feeling that’s calming.
And then what we can do, it’s a bit like this tree image. We can actually continue that sense of groundedness, our feet on the ground, and then maybe imagining roots going in to the ground like this tree. Feeling stable or anchored in the present moment. And you could imagine then a wave just clearing through through any tension.
Just moving down and it’s grounding itself. Just a few waves like this. Just moving downwards, pulling the stress and tension into the ground where it’s being earthed. You can do this standing up or sitting down and you can do it for a minute, 2 minutes, 30 seconds, whatever, you might find that actually just calms the mind and body.
This is the description that I’ve just taken us through. Imagine the wave head-to-toe moving down through into the body and this particular exercise is also going to be a separate exercise that I’ll include on the website.
So to recap, we had a look at what to do with our attention. Obviously Mindfulness is a big topic in its self. I recommend getting the book I mentioned earlier. Also the choice we have of what we put our attention on. If we choose to focus on our anxiety then It’s likely to become more dominant in our experience. If we’re balancing out our attention to other areas of our life then chances are that anxiety will not start to take up more and more of our thoughts and feelings.
Then a couple of practices to do with centring and grounding. So the next video I’m going to cover the topic of Being Good Enough. This is obviously a big area as I’ve mentioned previously. It’s a big problem for society where we’ve got expectations and comparison with others, this can create a source of anxiety for us.
Then I’ll look at our own philosophy, our personal beliefs. What’s important, where we get those messages, that form our particular philosophy, and the idea of being ‘good enough’, like being ‘safe enough’. This is the 2nd foundation we want to have. And actually putting the emphasis on others rather than ourselves, and looking at relationships and how we manage those in a balanced way.