"The Anxiety-Taming Blanket" series continues... [Last week's introductory post is over here.]
Even though what we most want to be able to do when we feel anxious is to rest and relax, the underlying belief running like a broken record usually sounds like “Something is wrong,” to which our first reaction is to tighten up and get tense.
(For most people, what I just described happens unconsciously. It’s our wiring, so to speak… Until we notice.)
The old-wired response
FIGHT. In fight-mode we scan for what is wrong and then fight whatever we think is to blame. In a more subtle form, the fight-response involves looking for fixes: we take out our metaphorical tool box and start hammering away at what we don’t like. While there’s nothing wrong with fixing and finding solutions, in fight-mode there is an underlying frantic-ness and urgency that propels our actions. Nothing calm and centered about it. And often, rather than bringing relief or rest, the frantic-ness of trying to fix what we think is wrong actually brings more anxiety.
FLIGHT is about running away from what scares us. (It doesn’t matter that we don’t exactly know what the danger even is.) Even though we don’t have to run away from sabre-toothed tigers or wooly mammoths for survival like our ancestors did, the wiring to run away remains. Being in flight-mode in response to anxiety can look like reaching for things to distract ourselves from how we are feeling or from the things we think are related to our anxiety. While our distractions can give some appreciated relief, the relief is often short-lived, and what follows can be a sense of even more restlessness.
FREEZE involves the things we do to numb and anesthetize ourselves from the discomfort of anxiety. It’s the old “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me” thing that little kids do: we hope that if we don’t look, then it won’t be there. Except that it is. And, unfortunately, what we find after coming out of whatever we did to numb is the same, maybe even stronger-than-before, anxiety.
Often we don’t notice we are feeling anxious until we’ve started or are well down the path of tension in a fight, flight or freeze reaction.
Re-wiring the old
metaphorical magical anxiety-taming blanket from the other day? The one that is the perfect size and the perfect shape for whatever is going on for you, including every single aspect of this anxiety?
Your anxiety-taming blanket is woven out of soft threads of self-compassion. These soft threads are also incredibly strong, but strong in a bendy and supremely adaptable way.
Sitting on the blanket of self-compassion has an uncanny way of softening the tightness that comes from the old-wired fight-flight-freeze.
Self-compassion involves noticing, listening and seeing. With soft eyes.
Self-compassion involves turning toward and being with whatever is happening.
(If the idea of turning toward and being with whatever is happening makes you more anxious, then THAT is where to start: by turning toward and being with the part of you that is scared about what is there. We are where we are and we always start there.)
If right about now you are getting a knot in your stomach at the memory of your old high school guidance counselor telling you to work on your self-esteem, fear not. Self-compassion is not about self-esteem.
Self-compassion is also not about approving or disapproving of what you find when you turn toward yourself.
Self-compassion is not about agreeing or disagreeing with what is happening. And it certainly is not about trying to make yourself accept what is there. (Although, with self-compassion you may very well find yourself feeling more accepting).
Self-compassion is not about figuring anything out (even though you may find that things do shift and get figured out).
Self-compassion is looking upon yourself and whatever is happening, with kind regard.
It takes practice. Most of us, especially those of us who have struggled mightily with anxiety, aren’t adept at self-compassion when we begin to try. That’s OK. Self-compassion is a quality we can cultivate. Even the very smallest movement toward self-compassion counts greatly.
Here are some helpful ways to practice self-compassion, especially if you are puzzled about how to go about it:
- Bring to mind someone or something that embodies or represents the quality of compassion for you. It could be a teacher, a religious figure, a therapist, a pet… it could even be a stuffed animal. Maybe it’s several people and your dog.
How would ___ be with you right now?
See it in your mind’s eye, and feel what happens in your body.
- Another way to cultivate self-compassion is to envision someone or something you greatly care about with an uncomplicated, no-questions-asked kind of care. If that person were feeling the anxiety you are feeling, imagine how you would go about showing them compassion:
How do you look at them? What do you say? What do you not say?
See it, hear it in your mind’s eye. Feel what it does in your body.
Remember that your blanket has room for everything —including the part of you afraid of all the things on the blanket— and it is woven out of self-compassion. Maybe someone who embodies compassion for you has joined you on the blanket. Maybe the blanket is wrapped around you and that special somebody or something you adore and easily feel compassion.
The mind’s eye can show a powerful movie. Close your eyes and let it roll. And if you want, of course, tell about it in the comment field below.
P.S. A little bow of thanks to those I channel for myself these days when I’m having a hard time feeling compassion for myself: Tara Brach, Byron Katie, my barefoot lady (a.k.a, therapist), and Humlum, to name a few. I love having them on my blanket with me.
There is a substantive and growing body of research on the effectiveness of self-compassion and mindfulness for anxiety and depression. A quick Google search for “self-compassion and anxiety” will yield vast result. The research done by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, among others, is solid and very promising.