Feel anxious? Be curious
You might think the title of this article, ‘Feel anxious? Be curious’, is an odd thing to read given how distressing symptoms of anxiety can be. You’d be right, simply because it’s unusual for anyone to suggest an anxious individual to be ‘curious’ about a debilitating condition like anxiety.
Key research shows, however, that trying to suppress unwanted feelings using things that distract or by simply suppressing thoughts simply are not effective. In fact, pushing away the feelings of anxiety can frequently bring on much stronger negative feelings, precisely the feelings we’re trying to avoid. Avoidance has the same effect too; calling into work sick in order to avoid presenting to a group of colleagues, won’t help. Quite the opposite, in fact, which is a shame.
If I ask you not to think of a blue elephant, what happens? You cannot avoid thinking of a blue elephant. You have to bring to mind a blue elephant in order for your brain to attempt to not think about it. ISo it is similar with feelings of anxiety. Trying not to feel anxious by positive self-talk often fails completely.
Being curious about anxiety isn’t meant as a white flag of surrender to being anxious. Quite the opposite. Curiosity about the anxious symptoms is a good place to be because the more honest you are in accepting worry or anxiety, the greater the chance you will be able to see anxiety for what it is i.e. a version of you that is totally not you.
Let’s take a closer look at what anxiety is
Put simply, in whatever term it is described - worry, nervousness, nerves, anxiety – all these amount to a fear of future events, yet to happen.
If you see a young child fall, get up, fall, try, try and try again at doing whatever he or she is trying to do, the child has no concept of worry over whether the next attempt is going to fail or not.
Instead, the worry is a learned behaviour, usually the result of a significant emotional event. These events tend to be significant because to the anxious individual, the emotion attached to that event was disabling. This could have been any of the following typical events experienced in earlier life:
- In school, a feeling of humiliation at failing or being ridiculed in front of fellow students.
- Feelings of rejection after an unsuccessful audition for a play, musical band or choir.
- Exclusion from a circle of friends.
How can hypnotherapy help with anxiety?
Much of the work of a hypnotherapist is aimed at identifying this earliest recalled memory that a client can bring to mind and working on that significant event with the most suitable technique for that client at that particular time. The mantra, one size doesn’t fit all, often applies so what a therapist may find works for you may not work in the same way for someone else with a similar set of symptoms.
Anxiety has a positive intent
Another aspect of anxiety is that, unbelievably, its intent is positive. Again, how can it be that disabling symptoms of nervousness, dread, heart-sink, butterflies, sweating etc. can ever be seen as being useful?
The important thing we need to accept is that anxiety is a term used to describe what is a crucial part of being human: the flight or fight response. Sometimes also referred to as the flight, fright or freeze response.
This is a natural, commonplace response to anything that presents threat or peril to you or more specifically, your unconscious mind and is inherited from our caveman ancestors.
Remember what we just said about anxiety being a response to a significant emotional event in your earlier life? Well, it’s not you as such that drives this response. It’s your unconscious mind. Much of what we experience in life is taken in unconsciously, simply because we human beings do not have the brain processing power of a laptop computer to process stuff consciously.
That’s where our unconscious mind comes in
Driving your car or taking a seat at the table are good examples of things we do unconsciously. The brain works by hunting out patterns, linking previous events to the present and working out if a pattern exists. The easiest way to think about this is to think that finding a pattern or similarity to an event as a bit like flicking a light switch on. When your unconscious mind sees a similarity to what it sees as similar to one from your early life, it throws a switch and makes you experience a physical and emotional response in just the same way as you experienced when you were 12 years of age. Amazing isn’t it?
So why is this important? Well in simple terms, if you had anxiety today, your unconscious mind is putting you on alert because it has recognised an event today (a perceived threat to you e.g. physical harm or a risk of humiliation) that is just like that experienced in childhood. Your unconscious is protecting you by having you respond in a way it thinks will serve you best: to fight the threat, flee it or freeze, until the threat passes.
No one can change their past life. What happened, has happened. What can be modified, however, is the response to that past life event. This is precisely what your therapist will attempt to do: working with you, identify the trigger event in childhood and then help you reframe its meaning.
So, why curious?
Well as discussed, pushing the worry out of sight or trying to avoid an event, will often lead to a rebound of the very symptoms the avoidance strategy seeks to avoid. Instead, there is good evidence that dealing with symptoms by nudging your fears or worries can be very helpful.
The next time a worry comes to mind, squeeze the 3rd and 4th fingers of your left hand by your right hand. Do not think about pushing negative thoughts away. Just concentrate on squeezing these fingers and notice how the fingers feel warm, tingle perhaps. Be curious how supportive your right hand is towards the fingers of your left hand. Be comfortable.
The 7/ 11 breathing technique and the way it works is by stimulating a part of the parasympathetic nervous system. This technique focuses on the out breath and it is this out breath that stimulates this part of the nervous system.
First of all, recognise you are going to focus on breathing from deep down in your abdomen. The easiest way is to imagine a balloon in your abdomen and you are going to inflate this balloon using the movement of your abdomen.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, counting to seven as you breathe in.
- Next, breathe out through your mouth whilst counting to eleven.
- Do this for 5-10 minutes until feel either calm or calmer.
- Sometimes just doing this for ten out breaths can get you back to feeling less anxious.
- If you find it’s difficult to follow this 7/ 11 technique, try a 5/ 8 or 3/ 5 instead. Just make the exhale longer than the inhale.
When we are anxious, we often have shallow, rapid breathing from high up in the chest leading to not enough oxygen being taken into the body or not enough carbon dioxide being eliminated from the body. This delicate balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide can easily be upset in an anxious individual.
Practising this technique whenever you can brings beneficial effects such as reducing stress before making a presentation or whatever else triggers the worry.
So, in summary, anxiety is very common and can be treated very effectively. Knowing this, just embrace who we are and be curious, fascinated even.
Thank you for reading!
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