Written by: Donna Collins, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
Anxiety can be hugely debilitating for so many people. There is a belief that anxiety is something to learn to live with and restricts so many people in their lives. This article describes how it is possible to overcome anxiety and live with clarity instead. How can we do this?
In the moments when anxiety strikes, it can be difficult to control the sense of overwhelm that is experienced in the body. The initial steps, therefore, describe how to be with anxiety when this happens.
The first step to relieving anxiety is to recognise that you are not alone in your experience. Millions of people are, right now, while you’re reading this article, experiencing very similar bodily sensations of shallow breathing, breathlessness, raised heart rates, and cold waves of rapid, thought induced, fear and panic racing through their entire being.
Realising you are not alone in your experience can be incredibly healing and help reduce anxiety symptoms, as this awareness can bring a sense of normality to what is happening in your body. Without this, many people experience further heightened fear, when they start imagining that something is wrong with them and what might happen next.
Focus on your breath.
When a person feels anxious, fear of what is happening is heightened by a sense of being out of control and the imagined notion of what else is going to happen. The body responds to this fear by activating an adrenaline-induced, fight, flight, or freeze survival function and this alters the breath to more shallow breathing.
It is hugely challenging in these moments to consciously choose to breathe down into our stomachs, using diaphragmatic breathing, however, it is possible. This simply means intentionally directing your breath down into your lungs and, as your lungs and chest expand, allowing your stomach to expand also. This makes space for your diaphragm to move down so that your lungs fill with air.
Focus on the exhale.
Many people find exhaling difficult and breathe out in a very shallow way even if they are inhaling deeply. Continuing your focus on the out-breath and drawing your stomach inwards, allows you to exhale fully, even if you pause briefly mid-exhale, and then continue. It can be helpful to breathe out through your mouth with pursed lips while you do this.
The exhale is incredibly important as it brings a sense of calm. Many people know to breathe more deeply when they are experiencing anxiety however increasing the amount of air they breathe in can also act as a stimulus and can increase anxiety levels not reduce them.
The third step is to be clear in your belief that the anxiety ‘attack’ that you are experiencing right now will pass. High levels of fear and panic bring thoughts to many people that perpetuate the belief that anxiety symptoms will continue for a long time, if not forever. Telling yourself ‘this will pass’ is so important in the moments when anxiety seems to be taking a firmer hold over your body.
This is not as simple as it sounds in these moments. Anxiety can assert its hold over a person, so much so, that any reassuring thoughts seem to be blocked out, or so quiet they become hard to hear over the voice of fear. It can take a lot of effort and repetition of the same words, to start to believe that the wave of fear is going to take its leave at some point soon. So repeating the words ‘this will pass,’ and asking those who are close to you to tell you this at times when they may witness you having this experience, can also be helpful.
Having post-it notes around your house or a note on your phone that states these words can also be really helpful reminders.
It can be very easy to look to the outer world as a way to distract from having anxiety and in some moments, when an anxiety attack occurs, it can be helpful to look at textures around you, such as rattan furniture, or furry leaves on a plant, or a pet to stroke, or simply the texture of the clothes you are wearing, as a means of taking the focus away from your body and onto things that you know and love.
There will be a natural propensity to rush this. I have heard people say, after a second of touching a leaf, ‘this isn’t working!’ This practice takes time. Whilst focusing on your breath, try to notice all of the detail of the leaf; the colour; the shape; the fine lines running through the leaf; the delicate softness; and the sense of aliveness about the leaf that gives it fullness and depth of green.
Sensory perception can be a huge help in a moment of intense anxiety, focusing on things that are familiar to you, by using your vision, smell, taste and hearing, as well as touch, can assist in alleviating more acute symptoms.
Many people find it helpful to look at and notice colours and textures in cushions; art or ornaments as well as plants. Smelling plants such as lavender, rosemary and salvia, along with many other herbs, can help bring a sense of calm back into the body.
Meditative music can also help if the anxiety symptoms allow the person to attend to this type of music in more intense moments.
To overcome anxiety in the long term, however, there is a fundamental step that needs to be acknowledged and taken.
This step is the belief and acceptance that overcoming anxiety can ultimately, in my experience, only happen if there is a will to look within at what may be the underlying cause.
This can bring a lot of fear to people which prevents them from doing so. Instead, many people believe that the only way to stop experiencing anxiety is to start taking medication, which can be helpful in the short term. Or using substances, or continuously attempting to change their external world to get some relief and feel better.
These distractions are purely a short-term fix and anxiety, inevitably, does not go away. The distraction usually gives a reprieve from anxiety which re-commences as soon as the distraction ends.
This step is crucial in creating possible change from anxiety to clarity and some people may require the support of a therapist at this stage.
If step five is fully surrendered to and accepted, it is possible to move to step six.
As a psychotherapist, I offer a unique way of overcoming anxiety.
In my experience of observing clients with anxiety, in the majority, if not all cases, symptoms seem to occur when there is a part of the Self that is not being listened to. This is an unconscious process and most people do not realise that this is happening. Instead, they experience inner conflict that occurs when trying to keep this part quiet, energetically through their body, as the sensation and symptoms of anxiety.
As this is an unconscious process, it can be very difficult to access these parts of the self and in most cases, it again may require a therapist to facilitate awareness of them.
However, some techniques can be used consciously to bring about change.
To assist in understanding what may be happening inside the psyche, it can be helpful to imagine a flower that has grown enough to become a bud. It has an amazing amount of beauty inside and yet, as it is forming, it starts to experience words and actions from people that tell it that it is not ok to be that particular flower.
The bud becomes stuck. Some of its energy trying to open and bloom and the rest desperately trying to stay closed and somehow open as a different flower.
Some manage to open differently, perhaps becoming a different shape or colour, as an attempt to be acceptable to others, however, some remain closed. Imagine the amount of energy that goes into remaining in this static state.
This analogy helps to understand what happens to many people as they develop throughout childhood and into their adult selves. In my experience, this is the fundamental, underlying cause of anxiety.
The energy that is being used in the inner conflict manifests in adults as surging energy through the body, in the form of anxiety and panic attacks and also a constant, unrelenting dialogue, that continuously brings exhaustion, and adds to the already present fear of what might happen next. This dialogue tends to be incredibly critical and again exacerbates the anxiety and impacts on a person's self-esteem and wellbeing.
Imagine that the dialogue inside your head is different aspects of yourself calling to be heard.
Instead of listening to this part, out of fear, and also because we don’t know how to, we are using huge amounts of energy trying to keep this part quiet, which is why many sufferers of anxiety also report feeling exhausted and drained.
Step 7 is to recognise that the voices that are taking part in the incessant dialogue in our heads are parts of ourselves.
Fundamental to transforming anxiety, therefore, is to start noticing, listening to, and recognising your critical voice.
It can be very helpful to imagine that this voice is criticising another part of you that is feeling very afraid and often very sad too! Symbolically, the adapted flower is talking to the original or authentic beautiful bud in the analogy used previously.
Continued focus on our inner voices starts to change our inner conflicting dynamics.
The repetitive practise of noticing when the critical voice starts talking and implementing kindness, understanding and compassion instead can feel liberating for many people.
This is not easy, it takes sustained practice! However, in my experience, this step alone can bring huge transformative effects, reducing fear and importantly, bringing happiness and a sense of emerging peace.
Start believing that sensitivity is not a weakness!
This step can also be hugely challenging. However, a significant number of people who experience anxiety are incredibly sensitive souls. That is why they have integrated unaccepting voices and tried to mould themselves into whom they feel they should be, as they are afraid of experiencing conflict. This prevents them from standing in the truth of who they are.
We can imagine that it is this sensitive part, the beautiful, unopened bud, that is responding to the critical voice! Unbelievably for some, it is this part that is creating the experience of anxiety in your body!
So harnessing this strength by no longer criticising, no longer attempting not to be the bud that you are, for fear of being weak, is crucial to bringing an end to anxiety.
Spend time remembering what you used to like doing before you experienced anxiety. This will help you start to connect with the sensitive parts of yourself. Who were you before you felt you needed to do things to prove yourself?
It can also be helpful to remember experiencing happiness when you were young. What brought joy? What brought happiness? What did you like doing then?
Allowing yourself to be creative can also help in this journey of remembering, as creativity allows more of a sense of freedom, rather than one of limitation.
The experience for many when they do start remembering and become more creative, is that they start remembering their innate qualities; all the things we are by simply existing in the world.
Being aware of our qualities is incredibly important to learn to trust ourselves so that when we do learn to listen to our inner wisdom, we believe it! Knowing and believing in our qualities is essential so that we are not thrown about in the wind when events happen in life that might otherwise feel de-stabilising.
Pay more attention to your body.
When anxiety has started subsiding through the previous steps, it can be helpful to start practising doing a body scan. Notice how your toes feel today! Scan your body for tension and practice breathing this out.
The more you are aware of your body, the more you will start feeling a sense of wholeness. This is because so many people have spent their entire lives focused on the thoughts inside their heads. Awareness of the body brings an immediate realisation of being something greater than this.
Many people are surprised to hear that intelligence is not just in the mind. Intelligence is within every cell of our entire bodies! That means that by bringing your attention to your body, you are hugely increasing the intelligent awareness of yourself!
This step is crucial to help you learn to listen and become more aware of yourself in a deeper way, and as the next step to starting to experience CLARITY.
There are many guided meditations that facilitate body awareness including those on Guided Visualisations
Clarity comes from inside not outside!
We can start to listen to ourselves even more deeply, by focusing our attention on our hearts, and learning to listen beyond the thoughts and words in our heads.
When you are more comfortable in your body, through the previous practices; quietening the critical voice, and scanning your body; practice taking your attention to your heart.
We all have a deep, inner voice of wisdom, that becomes silent when we experience fear and spend most of our time in a constant stream of thoughts.
Taking your attention to your heart takes you toward your inner voice of wisdom.
It is in this place that CLARITY can be found and anxiety starts to lessen.
We can learn to heighten our sense of clarity by focusing on a sense of certainty within that emerges once we have taken our awareness beyond the limitations of what we have been conditioned to think about ourselves, into a deeper embodied sense of knowing, and deeper still into the heart.
The connection with our hearts connects us to ourselves and enables us to connect with others, so these practices not only improve our relationship with ourselves but with others too. Ultimately, we start to operate from a place of love rather than fear.
We can start to realise that although logical, intellectual thinking is useful and important, our true wisdom and clarity come from a deep sense within ourselves that is beyond this.
We become aware that there are two levels of existence – the inner knowing and wisdom of the bigger picture of our entire life journey and purpose, and the day to day to behaviours and actions we need to take to get there.
This knowing and wisdom fundamentally change life experience and it is this wisdom, found in the heart space, that brings the sense of certainty and clarity, as a deep, embodied experience of belief and trust in the direction of our lives, which lies in a place of peace, beyond anxiety.
Donna Collins is a specialist in her field of psychotherapy in working with anxiety, proven through the transformative effects experienced by her clients.
If you would like more support with anxiety you can contact me online.
Living With Clarity is a 6-week online course starting in August. Click here to enrol.
Donna Collins, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Donna Collins is a unique presence in the field of psychotherapy and evolutionary consciousness. She is the author of Faith In Everyday Life; a Psychotherapist, Life Coach, and the Founder of Star Energy Healing.
Bereavement was the catalyst for a significant spiritual awakening, which transformed Donna's life from a corporate environment to psychotherapy and healing. Donna has refined her work and now teaches sensitive people how to overcome their fears and create a life they love.