Your mind is designed to think, that’s its job. If it doesn’t have something to do, it will find something to think about.
It’s why many people initially struggle with mindfulness if they’ve been told the aim of meditation is to clear the mind. (It’s not. Take a look here to find out what it really is).
Unless you have the serenity of a Tibetan Monk or Nun, with 20 years of meditation practise under your belt, it’s impossible to stop thinking.
Often our thoughts are concerned with day-to-day life: what you’ll have for dinner and who you’re going to see. But when you’re going through a difficult time, your mind can become noisy.
A certain amount of anxiety is normal. When you’re preparing for a presentation at work, or need to have a difficult conversation, it’s normal to have a healthy anticipation which allows you to plan what you’ll say, and prepare for any contingencies.
For someone suffering with anxiety though, what others consider to be ‘everyday’ activities, can be exhausting. Going to the supermarket, meeting up with friends or managing change at work can consume time and energy, whilst the mind goes spiralling down the plug hole (as I call it) with a heap of “what ifs”. And it’s dark down there.
The way the brain responds to danger – or perceived danger – (usually called fight or flight) means you might not realise how anxious you were until after your symptoms have eased.
It’s not that your brain wants to make life difficult; it’s trying to protect you based on past experiences. It’s not that it wants to stop you from going in to open spaces for example, by telling you “it’s better to stay indoors”. It’s simply referencing the past to determine what kept you ‘safe’ the last time you felt like this – even if it turned out there was no danger at all.
The good news is, now that we know about neuroplasticity, your brain can develop new coping strategies to rely on. This means your brain can learn to distinguish more healthily between what is real and perceived danger, and consider alternative, more positive ways to cope.
This might be creating a positive plan of action which may include setting manageable goals, or identifying things you know helps you when tackling a difficult situation. It might also include finding or accessing suitable support and creating a well-being plan that focuses on self-care.
You might, for example, decide to leave some space in your diary for after you’ve done an activity you know increases your anxiety. If you recognise that meeting a friend in a public place takes its toll on you, then knowing you can lay down when you get home if you need to, or that you will ‘treat’ yourself to something later whether it’s a warm bath or just some quiet time, can make all the difference.
Teaching yourself to recognise your early warning signs can also help you recognise if more anxiety than is helpful is creeping in. This might look like your hands start visibly shaking or you just can’t think straight.
When you find yourself in the grip of anxiety, it’s important to know how to manage the moment. Here are some tips – perhaps think of them as promises to yourself – which might help; see what works for you. If you know your mind goes blank, maybe keep these promises in your phone or use these cards I’ve designed. You can either take a screen shot or print them, and enter your own text of what you know helps you when you’re struggling. You’ll notice there’s an ‘S.O.S.’ card which you can either use as a reminder to yourself, or give to a friend you trust so they know how to help when you reach out.
Here are three suggestions for when it feels like you’re ‘going down the plughole’:
1. Pause (for about 90 seconds)
When confronted with anger, people used to say you should “count to ten”, and there is some logic to this. Although people tend to associate this with anger, it’s helpful for any challenging emotion, to just give yourself permission to pause. The research suggests that it takes just 90 seconds to shift your perspective.
When you feel anxiety rising, or your mind starts swirling, take a moment to bring yourself back to centre by teaching yourself to pause.
Bring your attention to your breathing, and just notice that you’re breathing. Try not to focus on how fast or how slow, how deep or how shallow your breath is. If it’s helpful, repeat the words in your mind with each breath “I am breathing in” as you inhale and “I am breathing out” as you exhale.
2. Tune In
Bring your awareness fully into the experience of being where you are right now. What can you see? Describe it in your mind. If you can see a tree, what colour are the leaves right now? If there is a painting, what colours do you recognise? Describe in your mind what’s happening in the picture. What can you hear where you are right now? There are no right sounds or wrong sounds. Just acknowledge what you can hear by describing it in your mind for what it is – sound. If there is a fabric you can touch, how would you describe it? Use your senses to bring yourself into this moment, just as it is.
3. Ask for Help
If you’ve tried these or your other ways of coping and nothing’s working, reach out for help. You’re not “over-reacting”; when you’re in an anxious state it literally can feel like you’re dying. Ring 111 if you can feel anxiety rising, call 999 if it feels urgent or book an appointment to talk with your doctor if it’s happening on a regular basis. Create a list of people you feel you can turn to when you need to talk, who will be supportive and know how to help someone going through a difficult time. Include the Samaritans on 116 123.
Managing a noisy mind without help can be exhausting, but once you’ve identified what positive action works for you stick with it. You’ll find over time that your mind becomes more manageable and you can cope with anxiety more healthily. It doesn’t mean you have to go to every party, or put yourself in the spotlight at every meeting, but at least if you decide to, you’ll have some top tips that you’ve created to help you cope more easily.
You might also find making a “Not-Knowing Plan” helpful. Take a look here.
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©️ Delphi Ellis 2019