Controlling Your Anxiety
We are social creatures – of that there is absolutely no doubt. Anybody who has lived at least 50 years on this planet will have understood that its absolutely essential to be in a relationship to maintain good emotional and physical health.
Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that being in relationship actually helps people live longer and suffer lower levels illness and disease. It would seem that we are actually designed to be social creatures – which is hardly surprising, when you think about our ancestry – all of the great apes are extremely social, depend on relationships in the tribe for successful defense against competing bands of apes, gathering food, and successful raising of offspring.
Video on the benefits of relationship
In this situation, it’s hardly surprising that when a relationship breaks up people experience such high levels of anxiety, depression, worthlessness and fear! These are all common responses to the breakup of a relationship, although its also equally common for people to experience anger and depression.
This in turn explains why its so important to most people to keep a relationship going even when that relationship appears to have gone beyond its sell by date – although, in fact, relationships can almost always be sustained, and there are very good arguments for making sure that you do put the maximum amount of effort into sustaining a relationship even when it appears that divorce or separation is inevitable – particularly if you have children. I’m not trying to proselytise on behalf of lifelong faithfulness, just trying to point out that there are benefits to relationships which affect every aspect of your life, socially, physically, emotionally and probably even spiritually.
(So I do strongly recommend that you seriously consider how you might stay together with your partner rather than how you might breakup.)
If you’re already in the throes of a breakup, then you might want information about reconnecting with your partner, because most people who breakup from a long-term relationship – and some who breakup from a short term relationship – often feel they’ve made the most appalling mistake, and want to get back with their partner as soon as possible.
In general, what we find as relationship therapists is that people breakup because they can’t communicate effectively: that, and the fact that the issues which arose in their childhoods, and which to haunt them to this day, are still uppermost in their minds.
Learn how to reconnect with your ex partner
Remember we’re talking here about a context here in which its people find they have separated and that the separation makes them feel worse in every way, physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.
There are many clear advantages to be gained from being (or staying) in relationship, and it’s no wonder that people desperately seek out such a situation in life. As social creatures were all programmed to be in relationship, not just for the emotional and physical relief we get from sexual pleasure, but also from the interaction of ideas, from the support and emotional well-being that comes from having a partner to talk to about our difficulties and problems, and also, inevitably, from the fact that we need to communicate to maintain our social status.
In situations like this, breaking up can be very hard to do – indeed, deleterious to health in every way. Advice about staying together can be obtained very easily from all sorts of places on the Internet. For example: read about forming a relationship here..
Where things go wrong, I suspect, is in the blind faith of the people who expect an instant solution without putting the time and effort involved in that is needed to sustain any relationship over a long period of time. This involves meeting, getting to know, and developing a deeper love with your partner.
My own view is that a relationship is much more likely to be successful if you start with the expectation of liking somebody (not loving them).
You see, liking comes from a feeling of closeness and affection derived from a mutual understanding and a degree of empathy.
How easy is it to love a man whole-heartedly?
What’s essential, I think, in any process like this is that you seek to engage with somebody who has essentially the same values, beliefs and attitudes as yourself. Without that, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that (at least in the longer term) a relationship won’t survive.
In the short term, however, likeability and liking a much more tied into particular behaviours: empathising, reflective listening, paying attention, being fully present your partner, and indeed simple things like apologising when somebody’s upset.
You might think it extraordinary, but there is plenty of evidence which demonstrates very clearly indeed that simple apologies, offered to your partner even when you don’t believe you’ve done something wrong, can really make a big difference to a relationship’s chances of survival.
Another thing that’s important is maintaining a positive attitude to your partner. It turns out that when people offer less than five positive affirmations for every negative interaction in a relationship, the prospect of long-term survival of the relationship is really quite low.
What I think I take away from this is that there are simple things that you can do which are very helpful in sustaining a relationship. But in addition, you do need to do the deeper work to get rid of emotional baggage from the past.
And by the way, nowhere is this more true than in the field of sexual problems.
If either the man or the woman in a partnership has some issue with sex or some kind of sexual dysfunction, be it low sex drive, premature ejaculation or whatever, then it’s extremely important to attend to this, to find a therapist who is capable of dealing with it, and to get it sorted out. (A very good way of dealing with the hidden issues which can cause both physical and emotional difficulties in relationships is shadow work. You can read about that here.)
The reason? When a couple are making love successfully in a relationship and in particular when the woman’s having regular orgasms, we know that the relationship will be much more stable and happy outside the bedroom than it will be if the sexual connection between the partners is failing or non-existent.
One of the big issues for all of us in our society is entering into a relationship which makes is happy – and which can be sustained over time.
One of the reasons we seem to have such difficulty with relationships – whether entering into them, staying in them, or leaving them – is that we aren’t taught by anyone, at any time in our lives, the things we need to know to deal with the emotions associated with a relationship effectively.
An obvious fact of life is that we all want to be in a good quality relationship, and we all want to have a partner we can love. No wonder, perhaps, in a society where more than half of all marriages end in divorce! Yet one has to ask oneself whether or not the Internet is the best place to get relationship advice. It’s an unregulated field, naturally, and the people who offer e-books and information on how to have a good quality relationship generally don’t seem to be qualified facilitators in shadow work.
Managing one’s own anxiety is a key task to being a successful adult. Life is full of uncertainties, a fact we have to accept and live with.
To be able to relax, enjoy life and take appropriate risks, it is essential that people are able to tolerate and regulate their own anxiety and fear.
Regulating one’s anxiety levels is a skill humans learn in childhood through developing a secure attachment. However, not all of us are fortunate to learn this skill or learn it well enough when we are children.
Part of the mechanism for having good control over one’s emotions is in developing full emotional maturity.
How does that happen, you may well ask?
The answer may lie in going through those processes for which we have developed natural needs – initiation rituals being chief among them.
Managing one’s own anxiety is an essential task for your relationship. Loving somebody entails taking big risks, trusting someone else, investing in him or her, and letting him or her make their own choices.
This often brings up a lot of anxiety and fear for people. It is important that we take responsibility for our own anxiety and learn to manage it, rather than ask our partners to ‘make it better’ for us, for example by asking for constant reassurance or by trying to control them.
How to manage anxiety
Just to stress the point again: Managing one’s anxiety is a key task of being an adult human being and taking responsibility for oneself. It is also a difficult task and will take effort and practice.
First of all, anxiety will always be part of our lives and we need to develop a certain level of tolerance to feeling anxious.
It is not possible to live life without anxiety. As self-aware beings, who can think about many possible futures and we can always make up scenarios about which we can worry. Also, we need to take appropriate risks in our lives. If we could keep ourselves as safe as possible we would never leave our houses nor live a fulfilling life.
Anxiety is part of our bodies, a natural response, which alerts us to potential danger. Just like physical pain it is uncomfortable, but really necessary to guide us in life. It is OK and natural to feel anxious some of the time.
Part of managing anxiety successfully is to accept that it will be part of your life.
For example, some of the time we may worry about our partner leaving us. This is part of the price we pay for attaching and loving the other in the first place.
Accepting a certain level of anxiety means we don’t let it stop us living life or investing in someone. Also, accepting it means we don’t make things worse by ruminating too much about why we are anxious, or criticizing ourselves for feeling that way.
However, anxiety can grow into fear, or even panic. In that case it can be one of the most stressful and uncomfortable experiences we can have. If anxiety goes beyond levels we can accept and tolerate we need to actively manage and regulate it:
Regulating anxiety involves three levels, which all need to be addressed:
Anxiety can greatly influence our thinking in a way that isn’t rational. We may easily go into catastrophizing, i.e. imagining the worst possible nightmare to become true. However, this is your imagination going wild and often has no basis in real life.
Managing your anxiety on a thinking level involves looking at all the evidence rationally.
Is there any real reason for you to be anxious? For example, do you have any real evidence that your partner doesn’t love you anymore? Would this evidence sound rational and substantial to your best friend or a colleague at work?
It helps to check out our ‘evidence’ with others to see whether we have blown things out of proportion or not.
In terms of transactional analysis theory, we would say we need to make an assessment about your fears from the Adult ego state. Or, in other words: from a rational perspective based on your abilities and knowledge as an adult today, is there anything to be anxious about?
If yes, is there anything practical you can do about the situation?
We’d like to point out that one of the most practical things you can do is to consult with a counselor who may be able to reduce your anxiety with practical interventions.
For example, you may worry about getting cancer because you are smoking. There is plenty of evidence that there is a link between smoking and cancer and it’s reasonable to get worried about it.
The next step then is: will you do something about it? You could stop smoking, take up exercise and eat a healthy diet. In this case your fears are appropriate and can help you to make a change for the better in your life.
However, say you are still anxious about getting cancer even after stopping smoking and living a healthier life style? In this case, ask yourself again: is there anything else that you can do practically to improve the situation?
It is possible that the answer is “no”. You cannot undo the fact that you did smoke in the past, or that people get cancer, whether they have smoked or not.
In this case one has to accept that life involves risks.
We cannot change those existential facts and need to make our peace with them.
We need to manage the residual anxiety, as we cannot change anything about how things are.
At this point you may know in your thinking that you cannot do anything else to minimize risks or uncertainties, but you are still feeling anxious. Anxiety is often irrational.
Therefore, it also needs to be addressed on an emotional and physical level. However, it is important that you hold on to the fact that your anxiety is irrational and that you have thought in depth about the practicalities behind it and come to a well thought through conclusion.
Don’t let the remaining irrational fears seduce you into going over the practical evidence again and again. Hold on to your rational conclusions and move on to managing your anxiety on an emotional and physical level.
Apart from influencing our thinking, anxiety is also an emotional and physical process. On an emotional level we experience ourselves as scared, panicky or terrified when we feel anxious. Within the transactional analysis model we locate irrational fears in the child ego state.
Another way of looking at irrational fears is that they are a memory of how scared we were as children, which we experience in response to hear and now situations as if the fear is about today.
Any anxiety or fear which seems out of proportion to today’s events or which is irrational and out of context will most likely be about the past rather than the present.
Anxiety is often left over from childhood as it has a lot to do with attachment. Building up a secure attachment with your main caregiver as a baby results in feelings of safety, trust in the world, and trust in oneself.
However, if we do not feel securely attached, or our caregivers are at some point absent, depressed, or anxious and stressed themselves, we do not get enough help with managing early anxieties about being in the world.
We then need to practice this skill as adults to learn to manage anxiety better.
Anxiety which is left over from the past may be experienced extremely powerfully in the present.
This is because as children we do not yet have the emotional or physical ability to regulate anxiety successfully. It is as if our brains and minds are not yet ready to manage anxiety and we need an adult to support us with this process.
The child will experience anxiety as all-consuming or unbearable due to the lack of physical and emotional maturity to be able to regulate it.
If we re-experience the same anxiety today as adults, we also tend to experience the level of anxiety as all-consuming or unbearable, although we now have the potential to regulate the anxiety and certainly will survive feeling it.
To regulate anxiety on an emotional level we need to support ourselves in the same way a good and available adult would have done in the past.
We need to soothe ourselves by being kind to ourselves, maybe using positive statements about ourselves, and telling ourselves that we will be OK and that we have done all the practical steps we could take to solve the situation.
Therefore, we need to reassure ourselves, accept that the anxiety will be there, and not panic about it.
If we panic about anxiety, we get even more anxious as we build up anticipatory anxiety: we get anxious about being anxious.
This can become a vicious cycle. At this point simply accept the anxiety that you’re feeling right now and keep your thoughts in the present rather than letting your mind drift to dwell on all sorts of possibilities in the future. Keep reminding yourself that it is normal and natural to feel anxious.
If you have checked out your thinking, you can reassure yourself that your anxiety will be about the past not the present and that the present situation is safe, or as safe as can be given life’s uncertainties. Beyond that there is no point worrying as “whatever will be, will be”.
Keep reminding yourself that you are safe here and now, despite feeling anxiety from the past.
You did survive your past experiences and you can now learn to settle and regulate your anxiety efficiently. Also, because the fear will be about the past, there will only be so much left for you to experience.
It is as if what is left over from the past is only a limited amount. Experiencing it, talking about it, making sense of it and integrating it will mean at some point it will all be gone. Look forward to that point!
It may help you to keep doing practical tasks such as house work or to do exercise. Make sure you get time to switch off by reading a good novel or watching a film.
It is OK to distract yourself for a while. You can also write in a journal or talk to friends about what you are experiencing. Try to avoid drinking coffee or other caffeinated drinks and eating sugary foods. Good nutrition will keep your blood sugar levels steady and help you to feel balanced.
Anxiety is probably the most primitive emotion we experience. In evolutionary terms, it belongs to older parts of the brain than our other emotions, as it is concerned with pure survival. Fear and anxiety put our bodies on alert and in extreme cases we go into the fight, flight or freeze mode.
It is important to acknowledge the physiological aspect of anxiety. Even with the most rational thinking and self reassurance techniques we may not able to stop the physical aspects of anxiety: the rapid heart beat, rapid breathing, muscular tension, physical responses of bowel and bladder, and a general state of stress or alarm.
To control the physical symptoms of anxiety we need to put in place physical exercises.
Firstly, a bit more information about the body and our nervous system. The nervous system, which helps us to operate our bodies from the neck downwards, can be divided into two parts, the voluntary motor system and the autonomous nervous system.
The voluntary system is under the control of our will and means we can move muscles, for example as we lift our arms. The autonomous nervous systems is beyond the control of our will.
It functions automatically in our bodies and keeps everything working. It regulates digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, the immune system and so forth.
The autonomous nervous system can be divided into two parts, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. They function antagonistically, this means it is an either-or system.
If one mode is switched on, the other is necessarily switched off and vice versa. It is as if your body has two main modes to operate in: The sympathetic is the ‘on’ switch, and the parasympathetic resembles an ‘off’ mode.
When our bodies are in the sympathetic mode they are switched on to work.
Our heart rate is higher, our breathing is faster, the blood gets routed to the muscles and away from our digestive system. Adrenaline and stress hormones go round our system to keep us on alert, whereas our immune and repair systems are turned down. This means our body is active. We may be exercising, playing, having sex or doing things at work.
Additionally, this is the mode your body is in when you are anxious or stressed.
In extreme circumstances we are on full alert, meaning our bodies are set up for the fight or flight response. We experience this physiological state as stress, anxiety or panic (or, if it has an enjoyable context, as excitement). Our bodies show the signs we associate with stress and anxiety: fast heart beat, fast breathing, high blood pressure, adrenaline, and possibly restlessness and agitation.
On the other hand, if our bodies are in the parasympathetic mode we are in the rest mode. Our heart rate is slow and comfortable, our breathing is deep and slow, our blood pressure is low.
Our blood gets re-routed to the digestive system and internal organs and our immune system gets more active. The body digests and repairs itself.
This is the mode our bodies are in when we feel relaxed and calm, the opposite of anxious.
Managing anxiety needs to involve all three systems: thinking, emotions and the body. If your thinking is rational and you are emotionally reassuring yourself, however, your body is in the alert mode or the sympathetic, you will still feel anxious and agitated!
Fortunately, there is a way of switching from one body mode to the other, which is under our voluntary control: our breathing.
We can take conscious control over our breathing and breath slowly and deeply. This is the switch our bodies need to switch from an ‘on’ mode to ‘off’.
Concentrating on breathing slowly and deeply for 5-10 minutes whilst relaxing your body will mean the physical anxiety response will subside.
This does take some time as your body needs to readjust your heart rate and adrenaline levels.
However, if you keep focusing on your breathing your body will switch off! When you do this, make sure your thinking stays focused on the reality around you, here and now, which is safe. If you let your mind wander to all sorts of scary possibilities in the future your body will not get a chance to switch off.
Many different ancient and modern techniques are based on this principle. Any physical excises, which have a focus on relaxation and breathing will help you with this task, such as meditation, Yoga, Tai Chi, Shadow Work, or Autogenic Training. These techniques will work best when used regularly. Their usefulness and effectiveness will improve over time with practice.
If you are struggling to regulate your anxiety, please invest in one of those techniques. They are invaluable tools for your life. It is worthwhile to practice and practice them as they will improve the quality of your life and your relationship tremendously!
Hopefully, by applying all three strategies and by generally looking after yourself you will be able to learn to regulate your anxiety fairly quickly. If you are experiencing ongoing problems, please consult a medical doctor or a psychotherapist.
Medications against anxiety are available. You could also enquire with a psychotherapist into the causes of your anxiety and support your efforts at self regulation that way.
However, practicing the above steps, especially the physical component of regulating your body’s level of alertness, is key in my experience.
As they say, the only true enemy is your own fear. Don’t let it rule your life or your relationship, but face it today so you will experience more peace and calmness in the future. There are shadow work therapists who can help you.