My cousin is generally a mellow, quirky teenager. She watches Japanese anime with subtitles and recently decided that she wants a t-shirt with Bob Ross’ face. So imagine my surprise when her parents recently confessed that she missed the first 3 weeks of school because of debilitating anxiety – and I mean hyperventilating, turning-blue-ready-to-pass-out anxiety. When asked her what triggered it, all she could say was, “There’s something wrong with the building. I don’t feel comfortable in that building.” Maybe she’s picking up on something in the past. Maybe the building used to be a prison, or a burial ground. While that might sound odd, she’s not the only one who has picked up on that weird vibe. Teachers and other students have also indicated that they’ve felt a disconcerting energy in the school.
I am no stranger to anxiety. It would be easier to count the amount of times I’ve been calm rather than the amount of times I’ve felt absolute, indescribable panic. I am sometimes shocked to realize how white-knuckled my grip is on the steering wheel, or how tense my face is when I’m doing nothing more than watching TV. It’s like my body is ready to spring into action.
In an effort to come to grips with my anxiety problems, I’ve come across a few tips to keep it under control – especially when all I want to do is curl up on the floor of my closet until it goes away…or the world ends, whichever comes first. If you’ve struggled with anxiety, you’ll know how difficult it is to stay calm and focused when you’re brain is yelling, “Run! Hide! Attack! Do something!” You just can’t rely on your brain when it’s in panic mode, so in order to get yourself back on track, you need to focus on getting it back on track.
- Focus on a fond memory. Try to remember every aspect of it in detail, from what you were wearing, to who was with you, what was said, and how you felt. Relive it in your mind as best you can and if you don’t remember some parts, improvise. You may find yourself so caught up by the memory that you’ll be completely distracted from what’s happening in the moment. This technique works particularly well with me when my heart-rate goes haywire. By pulling my cognitive awareness away from my panicked heart and pivoting my attention toward something else, it always calms down.
I used this approach when I was in the hospital emergency room for an unrelated issue. When the nurse saw how high my blood pressure was, she nearly panicked (which of course, didn’t bode so well for me). She sent me back to the waiting room and advised that she would call me in again to check my vitals in an hour. I immediately took the opportunity to apply this technique and within that time span, my blood pressure had dropped significantly (or enough to avoid having to get injected with something).
- Use the alphabet game. I picked this tip up from a self-help guru, and in spite of my skepticism at the simplicity of the exercise, I was pleasantly surprised when it actually worked. Here’s the premise: For each letter of the alphabet, come up with a word that describes how you would feel if you were happy. For example: Abundant, Boisterous, Calm, Determined, Energetic, etc. After a while, you’ll be so focused on trying to find a word for K, Q, and Y that you may just forget your anxiety.
- Tune into the moment. My mentor always tells me to “pay attention to the moment,” whether I’m asking him how to be happy or how to reduce my anxiety. Here’s what he means (in my own words):
Being in the moment is about keeping your attention focused in the present – not thinking about the past or, in the case of anxiety, worrying about a “what if” in the future. When you’re in the present, there is little, if anything, that should concern you. In order to be in the present, close your eyes and tune into your other senses (cutting out visual stimulation helps). What sounds are you hearing? What scents do you smell? If you’re sitting down, how does the seat feel beneath you? Essentially, immerse yourself in the moment. If a thought (or a worry) drifts into your mind, return your focus back again to your outer senses.
And of course, no one sums up presence and being present as eloquently and perfectly as the master, Eckart Tolle:
All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence. People don’t realize that now is all there ever is; there is no past or future except as memory or anticipation in your mind.
If none of these tips work, here’s my secret weapon: Do a Google image search of Eckhart Tolle. There’s something incredibly comforting about this man’s face…it’s like he’s saying, “No worries. I got this figured out. It’s going to be OK. Let me give you a hand.”
“Whatever the present moment contains, embrace it as if you had chosen it.”