Psychotherapy Perspectives

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Coping With Anxiety

By Margy Davis-Mintun LCSW

“Generalized Anxiety is characterized by at least six months of persistent and excessive anxiety and worry” according to the DSM IV manual of mental disorders.

Anxiety is most often manifested when focusing on the past or the future. It’s impossible to feel anxious and present simultaneously. Anxiety is usually experienced through remembering the past and projecting into the future. Since it’s impossible to live in either the past or the future, anxiety takes over.

Often negative experiences of the past are relived in one’s mind, and in this process, the individual actually experiences the emotions as though the experience is occurring in the present. In an effort to avoid the repetition of negative past experiences, one may begin to imagine the situation and project that incident into the future, attempting to prepare for a new and different response. The problem is that the projection is only that, and, despite the best planning, the situation does not usually play out in the manner imagined, our responses tend to be spontaneous, regardless of the amount of planning. This process is often experienced as worry.

A cycle begins in our thought process where we are attempting to avoid negative experiences in the future. Unfortunately in doing so we re experience the suffering and pain of the past with little advantage to future changes. The suffering and pain is actually repeated in our planning process, and we relive that which we are trying to avoid.

The illusion we engage in is the belief that we can actually prepare and prevent pain in the future by creating scenarios in our mind and altering the events that are yet to come.
While anticipating the future and preparing/planning has an important role in life, we can become anxious by the continuous repetitive thoughts that recreate over and over the past events causing more suffering than relief. These thoughts can take on an obsessive quality and re occur as worries.

It’s not uncommon that we criticize our past actions, and curse ourselves for our behaviors/words, and try to make corrections in our mind by thinking about what we could have or should have done differently.

There are a couple of simple alternatives that help alleviate the worry/anxiety. The simplest is to become focused on the present, since it is only possible to live in the moment. This can be done by either paying attention to breathing, or paying attention to our senses. We can only breathe and experience our senses in the present, e.g. hearing, touching, smelling, and seeing. These two options allow us to come out of the past and future and focus on what is actually possible, that which is now.
An easy way to attend to breathing is to pay attention to the breath, noticing inhaling and exhaling our breath. For some it helps to count and slow down breathing so that we are taking oxygen in a rhythmic pattern of slow and deep (belly) breathing. This process of noticing our breath brings us back to NOW and allows disruption from worry. Another option is to take in our senses and look and actually see what surrounds us, pay attention to the sounds in our environment, and notice our body sensations such as the contact between our body and the surface we touch, or feet on the ground, or our hands. Also notice the scent in the surroundings. Since we can only have our senses in the moment, this also brings us out of worry and into the present.

Activity can also alleviate worry, taking a brisk walk or exercising is helpful. A healthy diet and eating meals rather than snacking as a means of coping with worry is also helpful... Generally, activities in which we are mindful of the moment will help distract from worry and keep us focused on that which we have control.

Though these suggestions sound elementary and simple they actually require our presence to our self, becoming alert to drifting back into old patterns of worry. Sensations in our body can signal that anxiety is taking over. This is commonly felt by racing heartbeat, increased sweating, and tension in the chest or body. By becoming aware of these tell tell signs in our body, we can catch our anxiety at the initial stage and begin to move away from worry before full blown anxiety takes place.

If you are inclined toward meditation, art or music, sometimes those are also ways to gain some relief from anxiety. Remember to focus on the present. Easy as this sound it takes practice and mindfulness, and over time, old patterns of worry begin to diminish. You will find that much is possible in the present and nearly nothing is possible when the mind is stuck in reviewing past actions and trying to create remedies in the future, only worry and anxiety persist, causing one to become lost in the illusion that we can control the future.

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