Calming the anxious spiral

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Anxiety can be a growing spiral.  We can cancel it out with calm focus, or dissipate its energy with orderly communication.

Most anxious people are reactive.  In other words, they cannot help but react to the things they experience.

When you are asleep, you are much less reactive.  This is one reason why the body does sleep: by switching off, to a large extent, your sensory system, it gives you a part of every day where your sense-reaction cycle has a break.

However, many anxious people, when they wake up, experience a sudden awakening of their response system.  The heart rate rises, blood pressure rises, and the body again feels assailed by the world.

There are a few things we can do to develop a better sense of security against the world, and to stop our bodies reacting quite so strongly to perceived threats in our environment.  Here are a couple to start with.

MEDITATION

Meditation is a regular practice by which we teach our own bodies and minds to be peaceful, and not to over-react to the world around us.

We make preparation for a special time with ourselves.  We sit calmly, usually in an upright posture, and settle our minds.  We can focus on our breathing (this is a particularly good way to begin to gain peace from an anxious mind).

Every time our mind gets distracted, either by our environment or our own thoughts and daydreams, we bring ourselves back to the object of our focus.

The reason this works is that it establishes a cycle which can counteract the anxious cycle.  The anxious cycle takes sensory data, and reacts to it, which causes alertness and looks for more sensory data.  In contrast, the meditation cycle begins with calm alertness on an object of focus, and creates such a strong relationship with it, that other sensory or day-dream data can’t get into the cycle without our permission.  We are making a safe place for our minds.

LISTING AND WRITING

Writing is a process by which we transfer thoughts from our minds to a piece of paper or a computer, instead of letting them fester unattended in our minds.

Just as with meditation, we make preparation.  Picking up a pen, or sitting in front of a computer, forms part of the ritual.  And just as with meditation, we bring ourselves to the object of our focus, and exclude other sensory input.

Many anxious people find that making lists can help.  There are a couple of main reasons why this is good.  Firstly, just as with meditation, an object of focus is created (the list), and the strength of our relationship with it acts as a refuge from all the other data being thrown at us.  Secondly, making a list is an act of delegation.  We are deliberately separating our concerns in time.  Item 1 gets done first, then item 2, and so on.  This stops our minds from panicking in a spiral of fullness.

AN EXERCISE

The next time you feel overwhelmed by life, and sense yourself getting anxious, do one of two things:

  1. If you have time, settle into a suitable meditation pose (which can be just sitting quietly), and focus on your breath.  If you are in public, and you don’t want to look weird, then you can place a book or a phone in front of you so that people can think you are engaged with that.
  2. If you are able, write down what concerns you.  If you are out and about, you might like to diarise when you will next think about the anxious concern.  This can lighten the weight, because you realised that now is not the time for worrying, and there is a definite time in the future when you will attend to the issue.  If you have more time, then perhaps write a journal entry.  Or else maybe make a list of the next three things you will do.  This can act as a focus for your attention, and stop your mind running wild – you just follow the list.
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SUMMARY

Anxiety involves a sensory-reactive cycle: we over-react to our environment or our thoughts; our body starts an alarm reaction; and this in turn causes another over-reaction to things.

To cancel out this vicious cycle, we can use meditation, or writing.  Meditation brings us into a closer focused rerlationship with the object of our meditation, and makes it easier to keep other thoughts at bay.  Writing transfers our thoughts into a different medium, and therefore enables us to delegate our thoughts to a third party, whether it be a piece of paper or a computer, a diary or a list.

In general, anxiety is a spiral which energises itself when we feel we have no control over life.  We can stop the anxious spiral from taking us over, by finding peaceful activities which give us calm focus, or finding communicative activities which  externalise our worries.

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