You are not alone…an incredible almost one in five people feel anxious all of the time or a lot of the time with just under half believing that anxiety has stopped them from doing things in their life. (YouGov Survey 2014)
Anxiety is normal and affects nearly all of us, it can last for a short time and then pass. The problem comes when we get stuck with anxiety or panic attacks affecting our relationships, work, sleep, concentration, enjoyment of life and our health. We can be held back from doing things we need or want to do and feel that we have no choice.
One of the big difficulties with anxiety is that it seems to make sense to try to oppose, escape or distract from the anxiety. But research shows that trying to avoid anxiety, although it will perhaps give relief in the short term, will often increase the intensity overall. This is why people say ‘the harder I try, the worse it gets’.
The good news is that you can use a variety of techniques to gradually desensitise your anxiety response and increase your tolerance. By practising with (not against) the symptoms, you become less sensitive to them. Gradually you lose your fear of the symptoms and of anxiety and rebuild confidence. It’s good to begin at the bottom of the scale of anxiety, choosing challenges which although they cause a certain amount of fear, don’t overwhelm you. By building on smaller successes it is possible to gradually and naturally reduce the fear levels and then take on things that would have caused more fear a little while ago.
There are many interlinking factors that affect anxiety levels. “The truth is that anxiety is at once a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture.” Scott Stossell ‘My Age of Anxiety’. So it helps to get to know more about your anxiety, learn a bit about your mind and body so that you can begin to understand what helps and why.
It’s a simple technique which I have found immensely useful attimes of unbearable stress. I first came across it in a little book called ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Russ Harris. At the time I was experiencing extreme levels of anxiety, only able to sleep for short periods of time, life felt like a waking hell, I was desperate for anything that helped. All my knowledge of relaxation techniques felt useless to me, I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read explanations of new techniques, but this simple gem somehow was just about possible.
Incredibly simply it is just to concentrate on each breath, for ten breaths. Observing some detail, perhaps how the breath feels as it enters my belly and stretches my diaphragm or my mouth or nose, the temperature of the air. Crucially important for me was the permission to get it wrong. I was so anxious that sometimes even one breath was too difficult, sometimes I would manage only two or three, but the important thing was that I was doing it at all, it was an absolute triumph every time. What it gave me were some moments where the focus of my existence was not purely fear. It didn’t solve it, it didn’t make it stop, but it helped me get through, moment by moment and gave me a little respite. I was able gradually to relax more into the breaths, I somehow painted a picture in my mind of core self existing inside my breath and that my circling fearful thoughts were outside of this. Only just outside, but outside nevertheless.
Since that time I have used the technique in many ways. I suffered with constant pain in my hips and legs for several months, I spent the nights lying on my back propped up with pillows and on painkillers. I used the ten breaths technique to give me some space from the pain and to relax me enough so that I could drop off to sleep for an hour or two. Again, sometimes I would only be able to concentrate for a few breaths but it helped me over and over again.
Since then I use it to help me relax when I need to take a cat nap, at night when my mind is racing, sometimes if I catch myself obsessing about something, when my body hurts in any way. I don’t always remember to use it, most times I don’t get to the tenth breath, but hey…it just helps.