I’ve come to think of anxiety as a gatekeeper. It lets you know when you’re getting too close to some internal or external experience that’s off bounds. This can take a variety of forms. For example, internally it can mean you’re getting close to some emotion or feeling that has been too overwhelming to digest in the past and so you’ve had to wall it off. Often families have rules about which emotions are safe to feel and which ones aren’t. In some families anger isn’t allowed and in other families it’s the only emotion ever expressed. In another family it might be sadness that’s excluded, or in another joy. What was it in your family? Next time you find yourself anxious, ask yourself if there’s some emotion you’re defending against.
Some people feel if they open the door to these emotions, they’ll drown in them. But it’s really about learning to body surf. Emotions and feelings come in waves and if you learn to ride the waves, letting them move through your body fully, they’ll flow on, and be done. It’s when you stop them by tightening against them, holding your breath, and telling yourself scary stories about them, that they get stuck. That’s when you know you need help containing and processing your experience. It’s better not to be alone with overwhelming emotions or anxiety as that just recapitulates the original trauma that caused the problem in the first place. But eventually you can learn to do it for yourself.
A big part of regulating and working with emotion and anxiety is becoming aware of your body. Grounding yourself by feeling your feet against the floor is a good first step. You can also imagine that you’re connected to the earth below, that you have roots going down into the earth from the soles of your feet. The tendency with anxiety is for our energy to rise up into our neck and shoulders and head and this can help to counter it. Take your time really feeling your feet and the pressure of the soles against the floor. Again, imagination can help here. Picture all the little lines in your feet making contact, wiggling each toe individually as it connects to the floor. Notice how your legs feel.
Once you feel grounded, bring your awareness to the mid-line of your body. Be curious about the sensations in your abdomen and chest. This is where your viscera live, which are so much a substrate of emotion. If you feel tightness or other uncomfortable sensations anywhere, try putting your hands gently there and see what happens. The idea is not to get rid of anything or make it go away, but to find a way to be with yourself and your experience that is more nurturing or nourishing. Deepen into the sensations and allow yourself to get underneath them, closer to your core.
Curiosity is your friend here. It’s the antithesis of anxiety which feeds on itself, fueling the very fear from which it is born. Getting curious slows things down, whereas fear speeds them up. Bringing your attention down from your head, where your thoughts are going a mile a minute, and into the body and sensation, you come right to the gateway. You might be surprised what you discover. At the very least you’ll feel calmer and more connected to yourself.