Anxiety is an extremely unpleasant sensation. It is the place where fear of the unknown meets fear of the future, and they throw a huge fear carnival that can affect your whole system. There very specific physical responses we have to anxiety, a sense of elevated heart rate, a dry mouth, an inability to be still or think clearly.
These are real physiological responses to what your body perceives as a threat. Even if that threat is manufactured in some internal fear factory that is busily creating scary scenarios, your body cannot tell the difference. It responds to anxiety that is generated internally with the same enthusiasm as if it were an external attack. The problem is that our sympathetic nervous systems were designed to quicken our heart rates and slow down all our functions so we could escape from animals that were going to eat us. It was a system that was designed for short bursts of lifesaving action. Instead, for many people they have found themselves living in a state where this system is always on.
There is no question that we live in stressful times. Reading the headlines right now is enough to make anyone feel vulnerable and scared. When you add into it the day to day headlines of our own lives, filled with the regular victories and tragedies that befall us all, it can be hard not to feel overwhelmed. Our incredibly, amazingly well designed bodies, however, come equipped with a second system to counteract the effects of the sympathetic nervous system. It is the parasympathetic nervous system. It signals to our body that we are safe, that we are at ease, that we can digest our food and our heart can beat normally.
The thing to remember is that both these systems are triggered and controlled by our perception of danger. If I am sleeping peacefully and am attacked by a dinosaur before I ever saw it, then I never had the chance to perceive it and become afraid. My sympathetic nervous system never went to battle stations, accelerating my heart rate and making me strangely alert and focused on getting away from the attacker as my only goal. The reverse is also true. If I lie in bed thinking of terrible scenarios that I perceive to be real then my body will respond as if they are.
The key is to look honestly at what messages we are sending to our body. Are we running around all the time, claiming we are incredibly busy and extremely stressed and then wondering why our body is in a strange nervous overdrive? Perceiving that there is never enough time, or that everything is going to fall apart at any moment is a habit. It is a habit of mind with serious ramifications in the body.
The only way to break the habit is to look at our thoughts, honestly, gently and with compassion for ourselves. Can you identify thought patterns that don’t serve you? Do you have habits that feed your anxious state? If you find yourself in an endless cycle of stress then try introducing new habits as a way to break it. Instead of waking up every day and immediately checking email and the news, maybe go for a walk or sit for meditation. Stress is a habit we reinforce without meaning to. Sometimes the most effective remedy is just to change our routines a little; maybe then we can see more clearly what is triggering our anxiety.
Seeing clearly can come from setting aside a quiet time every day, seated in meditation, going for a walk, riding the subway, when all we do is watch our own mind. I have come to think of my meditation practice as a kind of internal eavesdropping, listening to the conversation that goes on in my head all the time, even when I am unaware of it. What are the topics I am returning to? Are they serving me, or are they keeping me stuck? I cannot learn to let go of them until I identify them.
If you are feeling like you are in overdrive spend some time just listening to your thoughts. Are you spending your days in a cycle of what ifs? If you find that you are trapped in a cycle of repetitive and anxiety-producing thoughts you need to work to break the cycle. The first strategy is to notice the signs, the accelerated heart rate and quickening of breath. Go for a walk, take 10 deep breaths, call a friend. The key is to recognize that you are safe, that this feeling you are experiencing is a product of your own perception. It is a thought that seems more real because it has a physical presentation, and fairies and unicorns don’t.
Listen to your own mind. Listen carefully and without judgment. Pay attention to your habits and start to see if you can change the ones that don’t serve you. There is no magic to mindfulness. It just means learning to listen to our thoughts and know the difference between the real dinosaurs and the ones we breathe life into ourselves.