The Slipperiest Emotion

Anxiety is a slippery emotion. It is the WD-40 of experience, making other emotions slither into all aspects of your life. Anger gets bigger and sadness can skid into depression. It also affects your smell — bet you didn’t know that. And it also makes you feel like you might fall over, so balance is affected too.

But that’s not all: anxiety has the effect of making you think others’ are looking at you or at least avoidant of you, and you wonder why you don’t really want to go to that party when you are anxious. And sometimes anxiety results in you feeling like people are violating your space, as in “Give me back the remote!” or “Stop asking me so many questions!” Anxious people seem to expand their need for personal space and they talk about boundaries a lot.

We all know that anxiety is an important emotion – it makes us aware of danger and so our biology has adjusted to winter weather (“get on those snow tires”), increasing density of housing or school size, the intrusion of not-so-smart phones. Many anxiety triggers can be crippling to normal social interaction and simple peace. A friend of mine says, “Don’t forget to breathe.” I always forget that

Here are some ideas about anxiety and how to handle the skiddy thing.

Exercise reduces anxiety. You probably know this if you see me for counselling. Most people who get a little exercise feel less anxiety and less depression too. As little as 20 minutes can make you feel calmer right now. I ask my clients to walk “in a straight line” (helps in the anxiety of circular thinking) for about an hour and not in a sweaty, comparative and competitive gym. 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes in the evening and, if you can do it, with meditative music (not Eric Clapton) works wonders.

Parents make us worry. Now before you think I am blaming your parents, like many things, high anxiety is partly in the genes, but part of the reason anxious people are anxious is because of their parents’ criticism, coldness and worried doubt.

Injunctions (these are anxious projections from parents or parent-like systems, to children) like “He’s not very bright, is he?” or “He can’t do it” becomes to the child, “I’m stupid” and “I’m a failure.” This tells us something about how we should parent our kids; that is, bring them up with affirmations like, “I love watching you enjoy basketball,” or “You got exactly the mark on that test you thought you would get” as opposed to “How many Cs was that?” or “How are you going to get into UBC with those grades?”

Think some new thoughts. It is probably pretty obvious that our thinking inculcates anxiety into our emotional system. Anxiety ideas are tremendously predictable, in fact, they are even boring they are so predictable.

One of the best ways of reducing anxiety is to think about situations differently than what causes you to be anxious. For example, before an exam, one could say, “I am a very successful person however I do on this paper.” Perhaps when we do our first oral presentation at Toastmasters, one might repeat a few times, “I am going to speak to these people as if they were my best friends on  my birthday.” In fact, that is great advice to preachers and teachers who are worn out after a talk or a sermon or who wear out their hearers. Suppressing anxiety is a bit like squeezing water. It’s much better to reframe the emotion with greater truth than, “If I don’t do perfectly, I am a royal screw-up.” Make sense?

Anxious people mind-read and jump to conclusions. Watching facial expressions causes lots of problems when you are anxious. Assuming the worst, you might well see the worst – this is called “perceptual sensitivity” and mostly it means mind-reading what others are thinking. “I know you think my dress is ugly,” might be an example. How to handle that? Appreciative Inquiry works well here. Ask an affirming question.

Meditation, reflection and prayer reduces anxiety. When I say this I hope that you don’t start ruminating. Rumination is circular obsession and this reduces thinking and calmness while increasing anxiety and worry. Worriers often say that they can’t mediate so they don’t try much, or they think they are meditating and decides that it causes them more anxiety. This is obsessive rumination not meditation.

One study found that four 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce anxiety for most people by up to 39%. Not bad.

Anxiety expands personal space. I think we all have an invisible field around us that we dislike other people invading. In front of the face it’s generally about 20-40cm; if others get closer without our permission, it feels interruptive. But some researchers have found that anxious people assume a larger personal and expect people to keep up to double that space away, perhaps about 3 feet.

So now what? You already knew you had anxiety and maybe now you might obsess on these things. I have a brief  manual on my web site called “MAD” and it is mostly about depression but it has a lot to say about anxiety too. Take a look if you like.

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Posted on Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 and is filed under All Entries.