The anxiety attic. You know it’s there, a mind that just won’t rest until it comes up with some way that things can go wrong for you. You can be perfectly fine one minute, and the next your mind takes hold of an anxious thought, worrying over it until it becomes a dark, looming cloud. Soon you are completely in the grip of an out of control mind spinning a constant litany of thoughts that arouse anxiety and discomfort:
What will the day ahead bring?
Will things go well or will some major obstacle arise?
Bills that need to be paid.
Phone calls to be made
Why was that person rude to me?
Everyone experiences this anxious mind feedback loop. For some it is a constant companion while others are able to successfully manage it most of the time. But when it surfaces it can disrupt your work, sleep, and social life to the point of complete distraction. So let’s take a look at some ways to recognize and manage this anxiety issue.
Becoming Aware of Your Thoughts
The first step towards beginning to control your anxious mind is simply to become aware of it. Sometimes our thought and behavior patters become so ingrained that we do not even know what we are doing. We may continue to operate the same way for many years, not noticing our lack of mindfulness.
Here are some of the patterns our minds habitually fall into:
Catasrophizing: Thoughts take on momentum and mass as they pick up random negative energy from an event that is currently perceived negatively. Example: You are going to be late for work, and that will result in your getting fired, you’ll be evicted for being unable to pay the rent, and you’ll live on the street.
Personalization: Believing that whatever occurs is all about you. Example: Someone in a store is rude to you, or simply preoccupied with their own thoughts and ignoring you. You believe that you did something to cause it or that is directed at you for a reason.
Black and White Thinking: It’s all good or all bad. Example: That bus driver was rude to me; all bus drivers hate me.
Should and Must: You should do this, you must do that, it’s the voice of the inner parent. The only problem is that you are an adult with more positive means of motivation at your disposal. Example: You really should stay home and clean house today instead of having lunch with a friend.
Discounting the Positive: That speech that went well? A fluke. The promotion you got? Somehow inevitable. Whenever things do go your way, you put it down to luck or some reason that allows you to see it as a special event, meaning that the positive is not part of the regular flow of things. Example: The new hair style you tried worked out well because it wasn’t that big of a change, really.
The Cycle of Anxiety
Anxiety can be very exhausting, not only emotionally but also physically. This is because anxiety comes from a perceived threat. If someone points a gun at you, you may well become anxious about whether they are going to shoot you. Your heart rate will increase, your palms may sweat, and you may feel gastrointestinal upset as your stomach churns with acid. As a response to this threat, you may decide to run away—a wise choice under the circumstances.
But now let’s say that I have to deal with an angry boss or a project that is failing. Neither of these things is going to kill me, but they cause the same physical reactions. Why? Because the body can’t tell what is life-threatening and what is not. The mind starts the cycle of anxiety and the body follows along automatically.
Most anxiety-provoking thoughts focus on the future. Will something happen or what if something happens, or what will the outcome of something be? Death, of course, is the ultimate anxiety-provoking thought, and so we push thoughts of death away every time they surface. Unfortunately this does nothing to change the situation or to calm the physical anxiety responses we experience.
None of this can change the outcome. All it can do is make you crazy as your mind ‘rehearses’ its response to things that may happen. And the constant stress of anxiety takes its toll on your body as you experience the physical responses to your anxious thoughts.
You need a strategy to get things under control in the anxiety attic.
Gain Control of Anxious Thoughts
The best weapons to fight anxiety and worry are always at your disposal, if you remember to use them.
Breathing Focusing on your breath brings you out of your head and starts to open your mind back up. In addition, when you pay attention to your breath, you can see right away the way that your anxious thoughts are affecting your body. When you find yourself deep inside your own head, worrying away, take a few deep, conscious breaths. As you move your breathing from faster and shallower to slower and deeper, you feel more in control of the situation again.
Ask yourself ‘am I ok right now, in this moment?’ This thought helps you to realize that nothing threatening is happening to you right in this moment. Again, it opens some space for you and gets you out of the claustrophobic space your thoughts are creating.
Look at the events and thoughts that led up to your anxiety crisis. Can you identify thought patterns, such as those outlined earlier, that you experienced in the windup to your anxiety? Did you overgeneralize an event, or take something personally that in retrospect wasn’t directed at you?
Now that you’ve gotten some control back and broken the cycle of self-created panic, ask ‘can I let this go?’ You will probably find that just thinking this will cause your muscles to relax and your mind to calm. Even if you continue to think about the events, much of the emotional content will have been discharged by the mental space you have just created.
Be mindful of your anxious thoughts. Recognize them. Work with them. Then let them go. They may never go away entirely, but with mindful practice your anxiety attic can
slowly shrink in size and occupy your mind less and less, leaving room for other, more joyous thoughts and observations.
Marshall Bowden is a freelance writer, blogger, and veterinary technician who lives in Chicago.
Mr. Bowden also has written extensively about jazz and popular music, His work has appeared on All About Jazz, PopMatters, JazzIz, Paste Magazine and other publications. He is the author and editor of Quotable Jazz and recently contributed a story to Rescued 2, an anthology of stories about rescued cats.