Like everyone else, I hated anxiety. It was the enemy – the sinking feeling in the stomach, tightness in the chest and restless nights spent tossing and turning in bed. I would beat myself up for feeling anxious. In fact, I was anxious about being anxious! However, over a period of time, I learnt how to make anxiety a friend, and even welcome it.
So, what changed? These are some of the tools that helped me to turn anxiety from a foe to a friend:
Realising where anxiety comes from:
From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety is a stress response that evolved to alert us to a perceived external threat. “Our brains are wired to detect danger, to defend us and to avoid pain, which is why when we feel anxious, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes faster, and blood flows to our muscles,” says author Dr Wendy Suzuki in her book ‘‘Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion.”
Realising that a certain amount of anxiety is natural helped me to stop being hard on myself for feeling anxious. I realised I was wasting a lot of energy by
i) becoming consumed by the anxiety itself and
ii) worrying about why I was so anxious.
Spending time in nature:
Going for a brisk walk or hike calms me down. It allows me to relax, my brain to quieten, and for me to look at the issue I am anxious about from a different perspective. Most of the time, after a long walk, I discover the answers to my problems. There is something about being in nature that is cathartic.
If you don’t have time for a long hike – getting your heart rate up with a short walk around the block or climbing stairs, can have an immediate effect on your anxiety levels. It stimulates the release of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline in your brain – the neurotransmitters which help to regulate our mood and decrease anxiety, stress and depression.
Focusing on my breath centres me. I follow these four simple exercises before I get out of bed every morning. You can do them any time of the day, sitting or lying down.
Step 1: Become aware of your breath.
Step 2: Make your exhalations long, keeping the inhalation the same.
Step 3: Make your inhalations long, keeping the exhalation the same.
Step 4: Make both your inhalations and exhalations long.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a fifteenth-century ancient manual on Hatha Yoga) says, “If you can control the breath, you can control the mind.” The solution to controlling anxiety is literally right under our noses.
Yoga allows me to stay in the present moment and quieten that ‘voice’ in my head. I have been practising a sequence given specifically for anxiety by the late yoga master B.K.S.Iyengar. The sequence includes poses such as Uttanasana, Prasarita Padottanasana, Adhomukha Svanasana, Salamba Sirsasana among others. These poses quieten the mind.
Combating anxiety with action:
Oftentimes anxiety is accompanied by a “what if” list. What if I get Covid? What if I fail the test? What if I don’t get the job? Turning the ‘what-if’ list into a ‘to-do’ list answers anxiety with action, and provides a tremendous boost to productivity.
So, I start by making a list of actions I can take. Worried about the upcoming exam? Review the most difficult material. Worried about not acing a job interview? Make a list of potential questions you could be asked. “The best thing about this approach is that it channelises the energy you waste on worrying and transforms it into constructive action,” says Dr Suzuki.
Writing a journal:
Writing in my journal about what is bothering me has helped me look at my problems from a distance, like an outsider or a fly on the wall. This allows me to process my emotions. When we do that, our brains are freed from the enormously taxing job of continuously processing a disturbing experience, resulting in lower stress levels, better sleep and health.
By releasing these feelings through writing, we create the space for a new perspective to emerge. You see on a written page what your higher self is saying to you. It allows you to release from overthinking, stand back and counsel yourself and tap into your own wisdom.
Reading books to make anxiety a friend:
- Good Anxiety, Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, Wendy Suzuki
- Chatter, The Voice in our head and How to Harness It? Ethan Kross
- Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts, Sally M Winston and Martin N Seif
Earlier, I just wanted my anxiety to go away as quickly and painlessly as possible. Now, whenever I feel anxious, I ask myself where is this fear coming from. I have learnt to make anxiety a friend and embrace it, and say, “Hello friend, you’re back!”