3 Steps to Respond to Anxiety (“The Distressed Pet Approach”)

The biggest difficulties that many of us face are our own feelings.

“Unpleasant” feelings, like anxiety, fear, anger, envy, guilt, frustration, grief.

While something in the world might trigger these – a problem at work, in a relationship, around money or health – it can quickly become the feelings themselves that are our principal concerns.

And when feelings become concerns, a strange loop can appear.

We can start to worry about being worried, and worry about worrying about being worried.

Which leaves us feeling trapped in our own head, caught in a whirlwind that takes over our lives.

The question then is: how can we break free of this?

It’s useful to consider what feelings or emotions like these are, from a biological or evolutionary standpoint.

Very loosely, we can think of our feelings or emotions as signals.[1]

They tell us that something is happening, and call us to action.

Loneliness tells us that we are lacking others, and prompts us to find support.

Anger tells us that something dangerous is out there, and prepares us to defend ourselves.

Anxiety tells us that something important is happening and it prompts us to pay attention.

Let’s stick with anxiety to illustrate this point.

***

Imagine we have a talk to give at work.

Whenever we think about this talk, or see it in our calendar, a surge of anxiety may arise.

This is the body telling us that the talk is important. It’s something we need to attend to – to make sure we get right, research, and prepare appropriately for.

The talk is something that requires our attention, because failing to perform well is a potential threat to our job and livelihood, so anxiety puts the body on edge, makes it alert and sharpens our focus.

So far, so good.

There is very little that is “wrong” here.

Without the anxiety, you may never get around to preparing for the talk.

You may not even remember to show up for it!

***

However, with our powerful, problem-solving minds, we can easily take this valuable “signalling” function, and turn it in more unhelpful directions.

And this often happens when we turn it back upon itself – upon our own feelings.

Because we think that we shouldn’t feel anxious about that talk.

After all, we know that we’re competent enough.

We know that our job is safe really (and, if the worst happens, we can always get another one too!)

But still the anxiety is there.

So we can get annoyed about its effects.

Our anxiety might make us fluff our lines, fail to sleep well the night before, and generally put us in a worse position to perform in the way that we know we can.

Here then, the talk is no longer the principal problem – our anxiety is the problem.

And we fall into trying to eliminate the anxiety.

This problem might even be worsened by increased discussion of mental health in the media.

With so much encouragement to pay attention to and manage our emotions, we can quickly come to see an emotion itself as a “problem to be solved”.

Isn’t it “bad” or “wrong” to feel anxious?

Here lies the beginning of trouble.

***

Let’s consider what happens when you view your anxiety as a problem, and you try to get rid of it.

Recall, your feelings and emotions are signals.

They are the body’s way of telling you that something needs to happen.

So if you try to ignore the signal, or get rid of it, what do you think will happen?

The body starts to shout louder.

Now, you really need to pay attention – the first signal wasn’t enough, so the body gets more and more alert, and the anxiety gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

Notice how this attempt to eliminate bodily feelings is the root of so many mental health problems.

Being Eating – “I don’t like the difficult feelings I have right now, so I’ll remove them with food.”

Panic Attacks – “I’m feeling nervous, but I shouldn’t feel this! This is dangerous. How do I escape? I can’t escape!”

Insomnia – “I don’t want to feel exhausted tomorrow, so I need to sleep.  But I’m not asleep yet. Why not? I’m so anxious about feeling exhausted that I can’t sleep.”

Depression – “This low feeling and lack of energy is a problem. Why can’t I get rid of it? What’s wrong with me? I’m a failure. I feel terrible.”

Social Anxiety – “I know that I’ll get really anxious when I meet those people. I don’t want to feel anxious. I want them to like me. I’m anxious about whether I’ll be able to cope with those feelings or if I’ll make a fool of myself”.

All these situations have the common thread of attempting to eliminate a difficult feeling.

***

The Three Step Response

To respond wisely to anxiety, fear, sadness, and so on, we need to choose to re-frame how we’re looking at these things.

We must decide that we will no longer view our feelings as “problems to be solved”.

Instead, we can view these feelings from the perspective of the body itself.

They are simple attempts by the body to look after us.

They are the body doing what it thinks is best.

Sure, the body might be mistaken.

Its responses are conditioned by our beliefs, past experiences, and mental associations.

Some of these are no longer true or helpful.

Others were never true at all.

Nonetheless, these feelings are attempts by the body to care for you.

So don’t shout at it back.

You need only be kind to your body, to recognize that it’s on your side.

Recognize that your body is your ally.

The body does so much work to look after you – it keeps you safe from dangers, tells you when you need more rest or food.

It tells you to pay attention to what’s important, who’s important, and to protect and care for those around you.

Still, it makes mistakes.

It has come to be afraid of its own nature – is mis-perceives feelings as a threat to itself.

And that’s not its fault (or yours!)

So don’t tell anyone off, when difficult feelings arise.

Three steps can help here.

1. Be brutally honest

Be as honest as you can about what you are feeling, when difficulty arises.

Allow yourself to feel it.

See what it’s like to stop running from difficult feelings and face them head on.

What would your life be like if you could stop panicking about the panic?

If you could stop worrying about the fatigue?

These are just bodily feelings and they will not harm you.

Allow them to be there.

Allow yourself to say with conviction…

“THIS IS HOW I FEEL!”

“I will not deny or feel guilty for this”

This simple choice to end the battle with difficult feelings already begins to soften them.

When we stop worrying about feeling bad, that the feeling loses its edge.

As teacher Suryacitta reminds us, the simple act of allowing ourselves to feel the emotion and being honest that it’s there and that we don’t like it, starts to transform and heal it.

“Feeling is healing”.

This is mindfulness in action.

2. Listen with kindness to your body

Allowing ourselves to honestly feel our emotions, we can then deploy kindness and compassion.

We don’t tell ourselves off.

We instead listen to the body.

In listening to the body, we gain insight into the situation, reassure our body with our attention, and settle things down.

Is this just the body getting things a little wrong?

If so, we can react with kindness, tell it that there is nothing to fear about one’s own feelings.

Does it help to tell your body off for feeling this way? Likely, not.

The body is simply a little confused now, like a child, and it needs your attention and care.

All it wanted was for you to listen to it. To know that it is being heard.

No more than this. Don’t try to convince it that it’s wrong (whoever persuaded people like that?)

JUST listen. Be there for it.

Perhaps when we listen, the body reveals something deeper than this confused signal.

Perhaps there is something there in the body that illuminates something useful about our beliefs, our expectations or our desires?

Is it telling us that we’re working too hard? That it needs more space? That you’re pushing it too much?

What is the body telling you?         

Allow it to speak.

3. Move forwards into the world

If the body is telling you something useful, do what needs to be done.

If there is something out there in the world that you have control over and that needs your attention right now, see to it.

Or plan a time when you will do so.

Don’t focus not on dealing with the emotion.

Focus on dealing with the world.

If this feeling reveals something about your underlying attitude, as you listen, reflect on this – what can you learn here about yourself? What can you let go of that would help?

If the emotion is simply misfiring, signalling a danger that isn’t there, remind the body that it’s okay, reassure it.

Then move forwards again – turn towards the world.

Realize that there is nothing more you need to do here, with this emotion.

You are free to enjoy life, even if this feeling remains part of it.

You may not want it, but fundamentally it’s on your side, and it need not imprison you.

***

The Distressed Animal Strategy

If you find it difficult to take these three steps, try taking an image into that process.

See if you can view your difficult bodily feelings as a small animal or pet in distress.

Imagine that this small animal thinks there is something dangerous out there.

It’s trying to warn you of something, and getting more and more worked up as you don’t listen to it.

The less you listen, the louder it shouts.

The more distressed it gets about your welfare, and its own.

Here, it’s clear that what this animal needs is your attention and care.

It needs reassurance and kindness.

This small animal is conditioned by the past, just like you, to see threats that don’t exist.

See your feelings this way, and you’ll see that kindness is the only wise response.

Be honest, show kindness, and move forwards.

Go out into the world with this small animal and enjoy life together.

Knowing that it is your ally and your friend.[2]


[1] Thanks to the Insomnia Insights video series, from Daniel Erichsen and Michael Schwartz, for putting me onto this model (see https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_tdQDMQon0CfD0xAbZPNDg)

[2] This post was also inspired by Tim Box’s wonderful TED talk, “How to stop feeling anxious about anxiety”, where he introduces the analogy of a ship’s captain and its crew – a crew who are fundamentally on the captain’s side (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZidGozDhOjg)

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