Feeling all the Feelings: Anxiety


Words by Jen Woodward

Anxiety isn’t bad. It feels bad, but it isn’t. Anxiety can keep us safe and sometimes motivate us to act, it’s only when it gets too much that it becomes a problem. Commonly we deny anxiety, hoping it might go away if we just ignore it. It’s natural to try and distance ourselves from something unpleasant, but what would happen if we leant into it?

Really think about your anxiety, think about the time of day it arises, whether it is attached to certain situations, certain events, certain people even. How much does it affect your life? Do you control it through planning your routine, your meals, your relationships or your whereabouts? Own those feelings. What are they trying to tell you?

One useful tool whilst exploring anxiety in the moment involves just noticing it and imagining you are describing it to a doctor. Describe how it feels, think about what your body is doing. Is your breathing fast and shallow? Can you feel your heartbeat? As you describe it to yourself, does it provoke a shifting of those feelings? Gently exploring where that worry originates, from a curious and accepting place - rather than being fearful - can help to provide answers specific to what you need right now.

Many of us have become good at ignoring the physical sensations anxiety brings up; noticing the uncomfortableness in your chest or your breathing quickening can be incredibly powerful. Rather than trying to calm those feelings down, sometimes trying to be present and inviting yourself to experience them rather than resisting them can be helpful.

Modern life is busy and overcrowding of time is something that is often encouraged, but a hectic schedule may contribute to the apprehension we feel. Try and spend more time just being and doing nothing, we take in so much information that the time for integration is needed to support our nervous system.

Coping with Those Anxious Feelings

Anxiety can be controlled - to some extent - through deep breathing and grounding exercises. Though these aren’t recommended as a fix on their own, combined with the above tools and mindful consideration of anxiety they can be quite helpful. Below are some methods to help get those worries under control.

1. Breathwork

There is a lot of healing power in consciously and intentionally breathing - focusing on your breath can bring you back into your body. Breathing with an exhale longer than your inhale allows the body to regulate itself and helps you feel more relaxed. Whilst anxious your breathing will likely change, you may have increased shallow breaths, essentially your body is preparing for action, for fight or flight.

Try the 4-7-8 breath. Try sitting down, with both feet firmly on the floor. Place your hands on your belly and breath out. Close your mouth, and as you breath in through your nose for a count of 4, notice your belly rising. Hold your breath for a count of 7, then breath out for a count of 8. If you find it tough at first, try shortening the time. Like anything, the benefits will increase as you practice and repeat this on a daily basis. There are lots of different breath-work exercises so try and find one that resonates with you.

Practice this breathing exercise twice every day, try and pick two times where you can build it into a habit – perhaps when you wake and before bed. Once you’ve embedded it into your daily rituals, use it when you feel anxious.

2. Meditation

Meditation has been used for thousands of years to foster inner peace. Regular and frequent practice of meditation or mindfulness can greatly alleviate anxiety. However, in the moment, if you stop and observe those feelings, it may make things worse. This is most beneficial as a regular practice and can be used on the spot once already a part of your regular routine.

3. Get outside

In her book, The Nature Fix, Florence Williams advocates time outside, referencing studies that have found it to reduce blood pressure, anxiety, depression, stress and mental fatigue. Get yourself outside, preferably somewhere green and leafy and pay extra attention to your feet on the ground.

There is no easy fix for anxiety, the benefits of these three tools increase through regular practice and over time. When we recognise that anxiety can signpost the things in our life that need to change, and highlight the things we have no control over (meaning we can release our attention from them), we can befriend it rather than being afraid of it. Still, get help when anxiety gets too much.

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Jen Woodward is a psychodynamic therapist who works in London. You can find out more about Jen and her work over on her website.

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