Don't get caught in anxiety
Learning to observe your emotions can really help regulate how you feel when anxiety or anger is about to overwhelm you. It allows you to step back and put a little bit of space between you and your emotional triggers. You are training the brain and body to slow down and remain calmer when it is dysregulated. This article offers ways to help prevent anxiety from overwhelming you.
Becoming an observer and letting go of anxiety
It is like having two versions of yourself operating simultaneously. An experiencing-Self and an observing-Self. The experiencing-Self is aware of your feelings in the present moment, while your observing-Self is gently watching over you as you interact and respond internally.
Learning to slow down your awareness and observe your ‘internal world’ is about connecting with bodily sensations and acknowledging your feelings.
This forms part of a reflective practice in which you validate and listen to your emotions. You value what your feelings are telling you and not just dismiss them, or immediately discharge them. It means not seeing your emotions as irrational, but considering them as a resource and asset in your life.
This practice is often known as mindfulness. Using diaphragmatic breathing helps you slow down, pause and reflect as you turn your mind inward. It means trusting your instincts and physical sensations - relying on the body as well as the mind, as a point of contact.
In observation mode, you connect with your inner-Self, as well as the natural world and your surroundings.
It's as if you had a tuning-fork to connect with your five senses and the natural world to improve your sense of well-being and create a safer environment.
However, being in observing-mode is more than just a thinking-process, or reflecting. It’s an ability to create a different level of awareness. Somewhat like a daydream, or trance-like ability, to be still and relaxed on the outside, while remaining alert on the inside.
A bit like a child does when lost in a world of reverie as it explores a garden full of wildlife, looks up at the stars, searching the wilderness of a forest. This allows us to get out of our head and create a sense of curiosity, awe and wonder about the world. Regular practice rewires the brain and the nervous system to get out of anxiety and become more calm and relaxed.
Whether you engage in meditation, mindfulness of breathing, or counselling- observing your bodily sensations enables you to be more reflective and less task-driven. It helps you take stock of your emotions and make better choices about the person you would like to be. Being an observer is more than simply noticing the way you think, your values and behaviours. It’s about focussing on the process in the present moment, rather than the outcome ahead of you. It’s about not getting lost in your worries about the future, or stuck in your uncomfortable memories of the past.
How to pay attention to the process, rather than the outcome:
When you are anxious it is easy to get triggered by dysregulated emotions and intense sensations such as shortness of breath, tension and panic. But being in observing mode allows you to slow down, ground yourself and breathe even while you are anxious. It encourages you to engage in the experience of an ongoing process.
You need to commit yourself to regular mindful practice - devoting some quiet time, to being still and alone. Use this moment of solitude to create a sense of inner silence, where you can relax and focus your feelings.
Slowly, you tune your awareness into subtle emotions, impulses and sensations in your body. Slowly, your thoughts recede, as there is not enough bandwidth to feel and think at the same time. You feel more unified. Your mind is no different from your body, but they are one continuous physical entity.
- Focus on the sensation and sound of your breath.
- Take long, slow in-breaths; opening up your ribcage as your diaphragm pulls down.
- Let go of any tension with the out-breath.
- Feel your shoulders rise and fall, as you breathe in-and-out.
- Deepen your breath, with your hand placed over your breast and feel your belly moving in and out.
- Notice the ebb and flow of subtle physical changes and sensations as you breathe.
- Notice the soothing-relief as the soft, cool air passes over the membrane at the back of your throat.
- Feel the muscle tension releasing and the space growing inside.
- Listen to the dawn chorus of birdsong in your garden.
- Pay deep attention to the variation in tone, rhythm, cadence and musicality of the birdsong.
- Learn to distinguish between different birds, as they roost or take flight, following the echo of their call from tree-to-tree.
- Notice the sense of urgency, excitement, or joy in their song. And whether you immerse yourself in that feeling.
Don’t be too quick to change what you feel, just listen...
However, learning to observe isn’t all about achieving an outcome. It has no standard of achievement or expectation in mind. Mindfulness does not require you to be absolutely calm, empty your mind, or transcend your thoughts. You are not supposed to find peace only, although for most anxious people this is obviously a desirable state to be in.
Mindfulness invites you to observe the sensations that are already there - even the feelings that are uncomfortable like anxiety, anger, resentment and disappointment. Do not avoid connecting with uncomfortable sensations in the body. Do not cut-off your emotions, but learn to accept and tolerate them.
Evidently, it is good to notice the ebb and flow of other feelings like happiness, joy, contentment when they arise from practice. But try not to put yourself under pressure chasing after them - this only reinforces a sense of frustration and disappointment, if they don’t come immediately. Indeed learning to tolerate frustration of struggling to connect with your emotions is part of the practice.
Forget the promise of meditation and just be...
Mindful observing is quite simple. Think of it a bit like a trance, or a child’s daydream - watching and waiting to see what emerges from each passing moment.
At first you may struggle when you watch yourself, or listen to your feelings. You may feel uncomfortable with the intensity of feeling, or notice the struggle to connect when you're feeling numb and disembodied. So many of your instincts, feelings and emotions may have been suppressed in the subconscious that you are slightly desensitised to them.
Thoughts may interrupt the flow of sensation, or cause internal conflict and discomfort. You may feel uncomfortable when listening to the chatter of the mind, or your negative internal dialogue.
Your reactions to the internal stimuli of anxiety have become so embedded and automatic, you may not have the bandwidth to notice subtle variations in sensation. You may lose all contact with your awareness, disconnect from your body and get caught up in the panic. Perhaps you believe it’s all in your head, spiralling into worries and thoughts. You don’t notice where in the body anxious feelings come from. And you don’t even enquire. It’s much easier to get lost in thought or caught up in impulses before you even notice what’s happening. Once you’ve reacted, the opportunity to observe, or remain aware is already lost. Panic has already set in.
Instead try to take time-out. Sit quietly and use the space for calm, diaphragmatic breathing. Settle your body, ground yourself and stay with your spine upright. Help your body to transition into ‘listening-mode’. Remain childlike - alert with curiosity and ask only questions, as you explore. Try not to form any definitive conclusions before you’ve explored all the evidence.
You can do this in a bedroom, garden, park, forest or by the sea. You can do this as you walk. As you wash vegetables in a sink. As you prepare ingredients and cook. Or lying flat out on your back watching the passing clouds in the sky. In all of these activities try to develop a trance-like state and remain still.