Most people experience anxiety at some point in their lives. However, many people are feeling an underlying sense of anxiety or uncertainty about being in ‘lockdown’ and/or what the future may hold.
More than three decades ago, when anxiety was a familiar companion, I was asked to speak in public for the second time. I was horrified by the prospect as, the first time I was invited to speak, I’d had a panic attack at the lectern, in front of 300 people. On that occasion, due to my shaking hand I had spilt water all down the front of my suit – and I could not get one coherent word out of my mouth. I returned to my seat within two minutes of what was meant to be a twenty-minute lecture, slightly damp, thoroughly ashamed and wishing the earth would swallow me whole.
While this first experience didn’t endear public speaking to me, perhaps you are like me? I refuse to go to my grave living with all the fears and anxieties I gathered as a youngster! I want to grow into a mature and capable person who can embrace challenges, without anxiety or fear hindering me.
Just before I was due to go on stage to present this second lecture, I said to Richard, the organiser of the conference,
“I don’t think I can do this Richard. My tummy’s full of butterflies.”
Richard turned to me and with a broad, kindly smile said,
“That’s fantastic Petrea! Now just get them flying in formation!”
That gave me little comfort at the time, but I did learn to tame those butterflies.
Maybe anxiety for you is a sense of butterflies in your tummy or a racing heart, maybe a sense of ‘impending doom’, the ‘nameless dread’ or an inner flatness, agitation or restlessness. It’s normal to feel all of these sensations, as anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress. Why wouldn’t we be feeling out of sorts given the many uncertainties, losses, traumas and unexpected challenges that we’ve faced together over the past couple of years?
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a function of your Default Mode Network in the brain. The work of this part of the brain is to think about the ‘bad’ things that have happened, then project them into the future so we can better prepare ourselves next time we encounter that threat to our physical survival. In the past, this Default Mode Network did a great job as it helped us better manage the threat of physical predators.
The problem is, now our threats are more psychological rather than directly physical – although many people are currently worried about their financial survival, which is closely akin to physical survival – our body activates the fight/flight system whenever we feel under threat whether it is physical or psychological.
When we go through stressful events, our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) becomes activated to prepare us to fight or flee from the danger. This is a fantastic system to enable us to escape physical predators such as lions, bears, mammoths, snakes – or angry neighbours! This system works exceedingly well for short, sharp bursts of activity. However, it was never designed to be ‘switched on’ for weeks, let alone months, as it has been for many people who’ve survived drought, fires, floods, mice and COVID and its flow-on effects. The Default Mode Network may be running wild with real and perceived threats!
The biochemical state our body produces when we’re anxious, is dissipated – or ‘used up’ – when we escape (by running) or we fight the physical threat. Fighting or fleeing ‘uses up’ all these inflammatory chemicals produced by the SNS, and our body returns to homeostasis – its usual restful/balanced state.
Some people are waiting for things to ‘go back to normal’. My experience is that we will be disappointed if we think we ever ‘go back’. We do have an opportunity to go forward, perhaps with greater wisdom and understanding, having gleaned any insight from having survived and processed the emotions around these events.
If you’re feeling anxious due to lockdown and an uncertain future, then implementing some physical exercise to ‘use up’ this biochemistry is highly encouraged. Even a 20-minute walk will make a difference, especially if we make it a mindful walk, where we focus on the sensations of the body as we walk, rather than using it as a time to ‘think’. Focusing on the movement of your body, the sounds and sensations of the world around you and each inward and outward breath, will keep your attention focused in the present moment.
Likewise, a massage can get shift the SNS biochemistry, and help activate our Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) which is our ‘rest and digest’, calming system. Soaking in a warm bath will have a similar effect.
If the symptoms of anxiety are mild, these feelings often dissipate by themselves after an event, or by talking with family, friends or colleagues. Our collective challenge right now is that there is much hesitancy and uncertainty around the future, and we simply don’t know what the world will look and feel like in a few weeks, months or years.
Identifying your symptoms
It’s useful to know how to settle ourselves when we’re beginning to feel anxious. See if you can identify where in your body, you feel anxiety. Is it in your gut? Butterflies in your stomach? A heart rate that is way too high. Tension in your shoulders, belly, neck or jaw? Has your breathing become more shallow?
Once we identify the things that activate our PNS – the things that soothe, calm and bring awareness to our own inner state, then we can consciously include these things in our daily routine. While it will be an individual list of things that bring each of us to a sense of calm, it is essential that you include these activities, practices or rituals into your daily or weekly schedule. There are simple things like breathing with awareness and learning to settle ourselves that can really help, starting with the little anxieties rather than waiting till we’re in the midst of a major one.
If our feelings of anxiety don’t pass so easily, it’s useful to know strategies for when we’re actually dealing with anxiety.
When you have those little anxieties…
Focus your attention on the sensations in your body; perhaps breathing in through your nostrils and out through your mouth so that you really feel the sensations in your nostrils and also in the rising and falling of your belly; the movement of your clothing against your skin as you breathe. When you absorb yourself in those sensations, your anxiety levels will begin to drop. In this way, we activate the Task Positive Network in the brain, by focusing our attention, and we disengage from the Default Mode Network – which is our ‘worry’ centre.
Some people set an alarm to go off every hour with some sound as a reminder to check in with their breathing and make sure that it’s flowing right down into the abdomen. It can be useful to check in every hour throughout the day so that you don’t let your levels of anxiety increase.
Coming to your senses
You might find it helpful to use the Coming to Your Senses practice that is on our website. Our body is always in the present moment. It’s never in the future and it’s never in the past. It only exists in the ‘now’. When we connect our breath with the senses of our body, the brain quietens down – and there’s less mental chaos. You literally ‘switch off’ your Default Mode Network and activate your Task Positive Network.
You are not your brain. You have a brain. You can train it to be in your service and not let it ‘run the show’.
Here’s the practice. You can do the practice while you’re reading it – and notice what happens in your brain as you do.
• Become aware of your posture – feel the chair, the bed or the floor supporting your body; notice where it is supporting you.
• Notice the touch of your clothing against your skin. Be aware of its texture. Notice the movement of the clothing against your skin when you breathe.
• Be aware of any taste in your mouth. Any aroma in the air.
• Be aware of all the sounds in and around the space you’re in. Let your listening run out to the heavens. Listen to the sound of silence beyond all sound.
• Keep your awareness focused on these sensations. When thoughts, feelings, sensations, conversations, memories, ideas, regrets or whatever arise in your mind, notice them and neither resist or embellish upon them. Let them come, let them go. Your focus remains on the breath.
You might find one sense is more meaningful or works best for you. Perhaps, you’re more aural (you relate to what you hear); you may be more visual, (you relate to what you see or can visually imagine) or you’re more kinesthetic (you relate to the felt-sense of your body). Work with whatever works for you.
Some people might focus, for example, on looking for red objects – and that keeps their attention very focussed on looking for just one thing. You might choose to focus on something outside your body that is a constant anchor to the present moment. Many people keep one of Quest’s Rainbow Ribbons in their pocket and, when they hold onto their ribbon, they train themselves to deepen the breath and calm themselves.
We can find a smell, a sight, a sound or the feel of something that anchors our attention in the present moment. It’s such a valuable skill to have. These days, I ‘come to my senses’ as a constant practice throughout every day. This practice keeps our awareness anchored to the present moment. It’s impossible to have a fully-fledged panic and come to our senses at the same time! Indeed, it’s what we say to people when they’re having a panic attack, “Come to your senses!” We intuitively know that our body and its senses are our anchor to the present moment.
Find a craft or hobby you love
Focus on something you love to do – perhaps a craft or a hobby. In this way, you keep your attention finely focussed on whatever the task is you have at hand. Gardening, cross-stitch, knitting, stroking the cat, being with friends, learning something new, enjoying listening to, or making music, singing alone or with an online choir. Anxiety needs to be managed so it doesn’t dominate our lives. We don’t want our Default Network System running amok! All these activities help you ‘be’ in the present moment and focus your attention, utilising the Task Positive Network.
If you’re experiencing anxiety…
For people experiencing anxiety, I encourage you to use a meditation practice every day for at least a month. The meditation muscles in your brain will strengthen and we know, after two months of practice, that this thickening of connections in the neo-cortex, the higher or executive functioning brain, are noticeably different when measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). We literally change the structure of the brain by training it to be focused in the present moment. When the brain is focused, we utilise our neo-cortex and its wonderful qualities – insight, intuition, wisdom, spontaneity, creativity, compassion and humour.
Even if you think you are a hopeless meditator, persist. It’s not about having a quiet mind. It’s training yourself to watch the activity in your mind, body and surrounds without judgment or involvement. You’re welcome to join me every Monday evening at 7.30pm at Petrea King Meditation Group on Facebook Live for a practice together.
If your mind is projecting its worries, concerns, fears, limitations and anxieties into the future and you’re finding it difficult to cope, and these feelings begin to interfere with everyday life, work and relationships, then it’s time to find help, as these feelings can be difficult to come to terms with on our own. Speak to a trusted GP who will support you in implementing some of these ideas and help you find what will work for you.
How Quest for Life can help
Quest for Life can also help you through our short and longer Virtual Programs and 5-day residential program, Healing Your Life. By learning strategies and techniques to manage your response to life’s events and ways to calm an anxious mind, you can regain control of your life and move towards peace of mind. We wish you well in managing your challenges whatever they may be at this time.
Wellbeing books Including Your Life Matters by Petrea King – a guidebook for life
Meditation CDs and MP3s including Be Calm, Sleep, Learning to Meditate