Studying to Interrupt Anxious Ideas

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My family has pet rabbits: two tiny creatures that, even after years of keeping them, pretend we can eat them every time we approach. The other day I sat down with fluffy White John, who recently had a haircut courtesy of my three-year-old daughter, who may have cut her hair in solidarity. As I pressed him against my chest, I felt his little heart race. In a moment of calm in the sun, I soaked my breath and smelled the lemon blossoms in the air. As John and I sat there, his heartbeat slowed and his tiny hips relaxed. I think a lot about our tender animal bodies: how we endure threats, upset and trauma, and how we recover.

As a therapist and mother of three young children, I also think a lot about how I deal with my own stress. I find my own center so that I can clearly see, feel and hold space for what comes together with my customers without interfering with my own emotional reaction. I try to calm my own humming agita so I don’t impose it on my kids. This is not to say that one should strive to be in an unattainable state of emotional neutrality. I’m talking more about the moments or days when we unknowingly move through life in an exalted state, when everything becomes a challenge, we get tired, and any disturbance is easy to undo.

Name your fear

I think the first part of dealing with fear – or at least a good start – is to develop an understanding of it.

Just recognizing your fear as fear is a good first step: “Ah, it’s you, fear,” I say when I’m excited, confused, and concerned about seven things at once. “Fear, now is the time to rest,” I say to myself as I am kept awake in the middle of the night by a busy brain whose chest is tense with tension.

Fear can come from many sources. These include fear of the unknown, desire for control, an overloaded nervous system or simply excess energy. Once we can identify the root cause of our feelings and observe fear as a defense mechanism in overdrive, we can begin to analyze the real level of threat we are facing. For example, having lunch on the table doesn’t have the same level of commitment – nor does it require the same intensity – as responding to one of my kids falling off the climbing poles. When I feel stressed about preparing lunch and reacting to the experience as if one of my children had just fallen off the monkey bars, I can learn to recognize that fear, not the experience itself, shapes and behaves my way. If I can recognize that, I can only create the smallest bit of space out of the feeling. Maybe enough to catch my breath and take care of myself.

Slower

Once we understand fear and how it works within us (or against us), we can create a space to remind ourselves that we have some agency over our own experiences. We can hold ourselves gently and practice being present. I do not apply this to a moment when we are actively traumatized. This is for those moments when we cannot slow our thoughts down, when our fear prevents us from doing things that bring us joy, or when we are exhausted from our own internal engine. My preferred methods of slowing down – and slowing down my clients – are deductions from mindfulness and creative practices.

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Orient yourself to the current moment. There are many ways to do this, but here are a few that I recommend:

  1. When we are lost in the future or the past and we are spinning, we can rely on the present sense experience. Name five things you see, five things you hear, and some things you can smell. Even easier, if you take a moment to keep the bunny in the back yard, you really take in the moment. Notice what you see, smell, and feel.

  2. Try to focus on a visible object and return your attention to the object when your thoughts disappear.

  3. Ritualize an everyday activity. Notice how the toothbrush feels in your hand. Notice how the toothpaste smells. Go slow and just brush your teeth, do nothing else.

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Practice imagining yourself in a real or made-up place that makes you feel safe and calm. Write about this place, dream about it, draw it. Notice what happens to you when you introduce yourself in a place where you feel safe and calm. Go back to this place when you feel drained.

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Think of your intrusive thoughts as trains passing on a railway line: you stand on the platform and watch your thoughts come and go like trains entering and leaving the station. Don’t get on the trains; just watch them go by.

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Draw your fear, fear, or worry. Work out these feelings as if they were characters in a story. It will help you understand the feelings better and gain some objectivity which, ideally, will help you feel less overwhelmed when you are in control of your fear. We do the same for feelings of peace, security and joy: what do they look like? How do you speak? How do you move?

Sometimes taking care of ourselves can be as easy as noticing when we are feeling good. When in doubt, splash some cold water on your face. Remind yourself that in this moment you are safe. and take a deep breath. Treat yourself to compassion and gentleness. Now is not the time for self-flagellation. The rabbit in my arms didn’t calm down because I yelled at it or forced it to do so. Treat yourself as if you were treating this little rabbit who is scared, insecure and overwhelmed: breathe in, feel the sun on your face, be gentle and reassure yourself, “In this moment I am safe.”

Annie Armstrong Miyao is a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist, writer, and mother of three.

This article is for informational purposes only, whether or not it contains advice from doctors and health professionals. This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, nor should it be used as a substitute for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the expert’s views and do not necessarily reflect those of goop.

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