That pit in your stomach
The dread hanging over you when you first wake up
The fear of leaving your house
The need for two front doors
The need to be able to see out a window
The fear of being home alone
The feeling that you can’t breathe
The lump in your throat
The heaviness that you feel in your body
The raised hairs on the back of your neck
The bead of sweat on your brow
That black cloud hanging over you
The inability to function
These and more are all symptoms of the anxiety that haunts many of us. I remember many years after my abuse had stopped I started having nightmares. I dreamed that a dark figure came into my bedroom and loomed over me. I was so terrified that I screamed. My husband trying to comfort me attempted to pat my shoulder but in the dark missed and touched my face. Still sleeping and deep in the nightmare, I bit his hand hard. I have also had incidents when I couldn’t sit without being able to look out a window or door because the feeling of being trapped was so intense. Other times it has been a heaviness that was so strong it made it difficult for me to move or even function. Then there was the unexpected tightness in my throat followed by the tears that seemed to come out of nowhere.
We all experience anxiety in different ways. We know how it stops us. We have tried everything to make it go away, and still anxiety haunts us. We believe if we could make anxiety go away, everything would be better. But would it? Let’s look at that thought.
Consider that anxiety is a normal part of the human experience. It kept our ancient caveman ancestors safe from wild predators. Anxiety can be that sixth sense that in modern times tells us it is not safe to walk at night alone into a dark parking lot.
If anxiety is normal than perhaps we are having these intense haunting experiences of anxiety because the trauma of our sexual abuse has our anxiety stuck in the on position on the highest setting. Think about anxiety like a burner on your stove. Burners on most stoves have a dial to turn them on and to determine if the burner is to heat to high, medium or low. What if anxiety isn’t haunting us? What if the dial for our anxiety is simply stuck on high? What if we can control the dial?
Remember anxiety is normal. All humans experience it. So, it isn’t a matter of getting rid of anxiety. It is a matter of retraining our brain to turn the dial down from high to low. Since anxiety is a normal part of the human experience, you may not be able to turn the dial off, at least not all the time, but think about the difference turning the anxiety dial to low would make in your life.
So how do you learn to turn the anxiety dial down? Practicing these steps will help:
- Remember anxiety is normal for all humans. So, the first step is to stop resisting it. Anytime you resist anxiety it turns the anxiety dial up and keeps it stuck on high. Instead accept. Say something like: “Nothing is wrong with me, I am only experiencing anxiety and that’s ok.”
- Relax and find a place where your body feels comfortable. Consciously take slow deep breaths in and out. Use the count of 5 to breath in, the count of 3 to hold and the count of 5 to exhale. Taking slow deep breaths will move your brain out of fight, flight, freeze and back into your prefrontal cortex where you can take charge.
- Name it. Say to yourself: “I am noticing that I am experiencing survival anxiety.” Or “I am noticing I am experiencing a vague anxiety.”
- Notice where and how you experience anxiety in your body. Stop and take a moment to write down how anxiety shows up physically in your body. Really notice. Be specific and detailed. This is like shining a light on it. Noticing and writing it down takes the control away from the anxiety and gives it back to you. You are putting yourself back in charge of the dial.
- Ask yourself: “What thought, or thoughts is my mind thinking that caused this anxiety?” We want to think that it is what happened to us or what someone else said or did or didn’t say or didn’t do that caused our anxiety. However, consider that anxiety is a feeling and all feelings are caused by our own thoughts. This isn’t to blame you. You didn’t do anything wrong. Your brain simply had a thought error. When you identify the thought error that caused your anxiety, you take back your power from the feeling of anxiety. You put yourself back in control. Write down the thought or thoughts that caused the feeling of anxiety. Don’t judge yourself or your thoughts. Just write and observe from a place of neutrality. Say something like: “Isn’t it interesting that I am having those thoughts.”
- Notice that if anyone (not just you) had these thoughts, they would feel anxious. Again, remind yourself there is nothing wrong with you. Your brain simply had some thought errors.
- Ask yourself what you would like to feel instead of anxiety. Then ask yourself what thought you could think that would cause you to feel the way you want to feel. At first this may seem unrealistic and hard. That’s ok. Trying using your imagination to answer this question. Write that thought down and practice thinking that thought.
- Don’t rush these steps. That will only make the anxiety worse. Just give yourself the time you need to process. If you need to excuse yourself and go somewhere to process that’s ok. In the past I excused myself from business meetings and went to a stall in the ladies’ room with my purse that had Kleenex, a pad and a pen. No one bothers you in the bathroom. The more you give yourself time to process the easier it will become. It was my experience practicing these steps, that the amount of time I needed to process became shorter over time. But don’t set that expectation. Just be with yourself for however long it takes.
- Play with your anxiety dial. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but it is another step that puts you back in control. Imagine you can see the anxiety burner and dial in your mind. When you feel anxiety and only after you have gone through the above steps, play with the dial. Can you turn the dial up? Can you then use the above steps to turn the dial down again? See you are in control not the anxiety!
Please let me know if you would like help with these steps. Simply join Choose To Soar
for help and support.