When it comes to sensations of anxiety, there is no uniform experience. Some people experience ongoing, excessive worry, often known as generalized anxiety. For others, anxiety shows up in certain settings as if on cue; think of those who deal with flying anxiety, social anxiety, or performance anxiety. Still others experience anxiety in the form of panic attacks that require no obvious outside culprit. But what we all do have in common is this: Anxiety plays a role in our lives—not just in the sense of having a purpose, which it does, but as an actor in a play.
Below are some common roles anxiety might play in your life, along with the most effective techniques to find relief.
Anyone who experiences anxiety—whether chronically or occasionally—knows how quickly it can hijack our body and mind. It pumps up our adrenals until our bodies rush with enough adrenaline to run from a bear or lift a car. But when there is no bear to run from or car to lift, what then?
Some of us freeze. Others of us flee, fight, or fawn. It often seems that the only way to regain homeostasis is to leave the situation. But there is a practice that can help regain a sense of centeredness and stability.
To work with anxiety as the hijacker: Practice breathwork
When anxiety puts you in a fight/flight/flee situation, the best technique is to move attention into the breath. Try to slow down the pace of your breath and emphasize your exhale. This tells the brain that everything is okay. From there, the body will slowly shift out of the sympathetic nervous system into the parasympathetic nervous system, giving you a better chance to respond to a situation rather than simply react.
The Drill Sergeant
Under the influence of anxiety, we might suddenly experience ourselves following orders we might not otherwise find helpful or useful. For instance, anxiety might demand that you:
Pace the floor
Tap, tap, tap your foot
Clean the counter. Clean the floor. Clean the counter.
Shop. Cook. Pace. Control.
To work with anxiety as the drill sergeant: Try mindfulness
The best way to address anxiety in this role is through mindfulness practices. Begin by observing your behavior from a distance with a curious, non-judgmental mindset. Now, see if you can apply a mindfulness practice in such a way that you can turn what was a frantic pacing into a walking meditation, or a relentless foot-tapping into a mantra recitation. This way you’re not forcing the behavior to stop, but are instead modifying it with an approach that is compassionate and can lead back to a state of calm.
Our society generally views anxiety (and many other emotions as well, like anger or fear) as an enemy to be vanquished. When anxiety is playing this role, our ruthlessness to destroy it is matched only by anxiety’s determination to fight back. The result is a fragmented self.
To work with anxiety as the enemy: Use compassion
Remember that all human emotions are part of the human experience. Give yourself a break: It is not that we are not strong enough, but that the pace, expectations, and pressures of life are more than a human is supposed to take on at any one time. As Krishnamurti famously said, “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
Therefore, practice compassion for yourself and your anxiety for the challenges of living in a linear, unforgiving world with our cyclical, sensitive bodies.
What if they see?
What if they hate it?
What if they reject me?
But how will I get there?
But when will I finally know?
Anxiety can be like an impatient child in the backseat of a road trip. In this role, anxiety is the pursuer of certainty—uncomfortable with the unknown, unable to relax into the current moment.
To work with anxiety as the worrier: Practice yin yoga
One of the best techniques to work anxiety out of this role is the practice of yin yoga, which helps us learn how to go deep inside our body and sit comfortably in discomfort.
To practice this, here is a yin yoga sequence designed especially for anxiousness and worry.
When we’re in situations and or with people that make us feel anxious, our first inclination is to try to make that anxiety go away. But what if, instead, there is a deeper purpose to anxiety’s arrival? Is it possible that anxiety is serving as an advocate for our health and wellbeing?
To work with anxiety as the messenger: Use self-inquiry
Spend time journaling, counseling, doing inner child work, art therapy, imagination work, or other healing techniques to explore what anxiety might be asking of you. Ask the anxiety questions, and write back to yourself as if you were anxiety personified. Learn what triggers it, and what encourages it to let down its guard. For example, if you’re always anxious in a certain setting, consider what that setting might be calling up in your memories. Or explore whether a situation, person, or place is no longer right for you.
It is hard for me to imagine my life without my anxiety. I accept that it is not a bug but, rather, a feature of who I am. While I’m not always thrilled at its arrival, I can nearly always look back and understand the bigger picture.
To work with anxiety as the companion: Use self-love
Our emotions are intelligent. If you let them, they can work with you rather than against you. As tempting as it can be, tamping out anxiety entirely is rarely a healthy, nor realistic, goal. None of us should try to live without difficult emotions, because once you decide you won’t feel them, joy and excitement get lost, too. As an exercise in self-love, try to shift anxiety’s role in your life such that it is not a roadblock, but a partner along the way.
Learn how to use alchemy to help manage anxiety.