By changing our responses and behaviours, we can fool our anxiety into thinking that we are completely safe.
We are naturally designed to fight off or run away from any unpleasant experience. We are simply wired this way thanks to the evolutionary development of the fight or flight response. This is why we try and fight off anxious thoughts and sensations or mentally run away from them. This same response which was and still is imperative to our survival, is actually counterproductive to an anxiety disorder. When there is no outside threat, which is usually the case in a disorder, we end up reacting to the unnecessary fight or flight response with resistance and fear which just keeps it in place.
It makes sense then to understand why we don’t respond to our anxiety in an accepting and fearless manner. This is something we have to consciously do ourselves. It takes patience and training but we can learn to respond in a way which activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the relaxation response.
When the brain gets the signal that we are safe and there’s no danger present, it will pass on the message to the automatic nervous system which will in turn activate the relaxation response.
How does this happen? Through our attitude and behaviours.
When we adopt the attitude of acceptance and allowance, we are giving up the fight with anxiety. Fighting anxiety keeps us stuck in the cycle because we are behaving as if we’re trying to fight something off. The brain will get the message that we are under threat, thus sending a message to the automatic nervous system to reactivate the fight or flight response.
However, when we practice allowing the anxiety to be exactly as it is, without wishing it were different, without wishing we were free of it, we are ending the inner tug-of-war with our anxiety. Acceptance transmutes resistance into peace. Walking into the anxiety, flowing in the same direction as it means there’s no reason for the fight or flight response to stay activated. You can’t put out a fire by adding more fuel. Acceptance is like the fire extinguisher of anxiety.
By behaving as if we are not in danger, the brain will pass on the message that we are safe. We can do this by allowing the anxiety to be as it is without wishing it away, adopting a fearless attitude towards our anxious thoughts and sensations, stopping the habit of anxiety fixation and through occupying our minds with the things we enjoy doing.
Adopting the attitude of fearlessness is another way which allows the relaxation response to kick in. I like to view this relaxation response as a self correcting system of our psychology. When we have the attitude of fearlessness, when we mentally ask the anxiety to do it’s worst to us, we are breaking down the illusive walls of fear. There truly is nothing on the other side of anxiety or panic and we will see this truth for ourselves once we stop running away from our anxiety and panic. When we are experiencing a panic attack, that’s the worst that can happen. What keeps us stuck in a fearful state is worrying about something bad happening.
I’ve already mentioned why giving up the fight with anxiety and why overcoming the fear of fear is key to disempowering the anxiety. Now I’ll explain why stopping the habit of fixation is imperative to allowing us to return to emotional wellness naturally.
When we are fixating on anxiety, we are giving it more energy and credibility. If not focusing on anxiety is the fire extinguisher, focusing on anxiety is the alcohol. Every little bit of focus breathes more life into the anxiety. In order to starve anxiety of it’s oxygen, we need to stop focusing on the things that refuel it.
What I mean by not focusing on it are things like going out of our own way to scare ourselves senseless through online research, constantly talking about how we feel and spending our day ruminating over our anxious thoughts and feelings. When we get caught up in the habit of fixation, it’s virtually impossible for us to allow the relaxation response to kick in and do it’s job of returning us to our baseline level of calm and wellness.
Because we have got into the habit of fixating on it, the anxiety will take quite a bit of time to settle down. However, by stopping the behaviours which increase our levels of anxiety, this will definitely send a message to our brain that there’s no reason to be fearful.
Like I said though, this is not a quick process. It doesn’t take days or weeks, more like months or even a year. Don’t listen to people who tell you that anxiety desensitisation can happen really quickly because that is a lie which makes people feel discouraged when reality hits them.
For a start, we have to unlearn a lot of counterproductive behaviours, take in new and empowering insights and adopt new responses which defuse anxiety. Not only that, but we have to make them a part of our daily lives on a consistent basis through retraining our minds until the new attitudes, responses and behaviours become second nature.
What’s therapeutic is to replace this habit of anxiety fixation with the habit of focusing our attention elsewhere, onto things which grip us and light us up. In order to do this correctly, it’s important that we don’t associate doing things with overcoming anxiety. What helped me was to just do things because I enjoyed them, not because I was looking to break free from my anxiety.
If I’d of done drawing and painting with the intention of overcoming anxiety, then I would be spending too much time monitoring my inner state of thoughts and feelings instead of being present and enjoying the activity. When we spend our time monitoring our anxiety, we are breathing more life into the anxiety because whatever has our dominant attention grows stronger.
To start with, I did have this mentality and it wasn’t until later down the line that I realized it was only holding me back. When we approach doing things with the latter mentality, it makes our experience of engaging in enjoyable activities unenjoyable.
We will constantly check to see if the anxiety is still with us or hoping it has cleared off. By this very behaviour, we will end up thinking about it because we are trying to get rid of it. In other words, it no longer feels like a natural experience of enjoyment but an arduous task of distraction that only keeps us placing our focus on anxiety. This is not a state of allowance but one of resistance.
Putting too much pressure on ourselves and expecting too much from an activity is what also happens when we approach things with the mindset of “I’m doing this so I can forget about my anxiety.”
How can we possibly enjoy ourselves and allow our nervous system to naturally desensitize when we are making something feel like a regimental exercise?
The sooner that you can unlearn the counterproductive mindset and adopt the mindset which actually allows for things to be a therapeutic experience, the more at ease you will feel within yourself.