In a psychotherapy group I lead, a woman reported miserable surges of anxiety—especially intense upon awakening mornings. She was feeling marked anxiety right then and there, with the group. We knew the immediate trigger of the anxiety: her husband of 23 years just left her, meanly and abruptly. But telling the story wasn’t alleviating the anxiety in her belly.
I invited Claire to let the anxiety be, to simply let her awareness be with it for a moment without straining to figure out how to get rid of it. (Straining to get rid of it obviously increases the anxiety.) As she sat with it, Claire described her anxiety as #7 (1 – 10) in intensity, centered in her stomach. Its color and texture were that of a basketball. A former club basketball player, she wished she could just throw the anxiety through a hoop and be done with it.
Anxiety can feel overwhelming; it can swamp us, leaving us feeling like helpless victims before it. Inviting her to be with her anxiety, to be aware of it, is also inviting her to realize that there is a “you” or “I” who can be aware of the anxiety, who is perhaps bigger than the anxiety… who can perhaps come to manage the anxiety.
As she simply let the anxiety be, describing it, imagining her former strength as a basketball star alongside the anxiety, it went down two notches. I then invited her to picture the anxiety as an infant—cupping her arms to hold it, imagining her stance toward the baby. She imagined herself cradling the baby, without words, feeling a soothing, nestling energy toward her.
Then I invited each group member to address the baby as Claire held her. One member murmured soft, tender words, tone trumping meaning; one wanted to sing a favorite lullaby but refrained :-) and gently shared the words; another said in an emotionally forceful whisper, “I will never leave you; NEVER!” As they entered into Claire’s anxious need for soothing—profoundly empathizing with her—Claire’s burden lightened. Her anxiety went down further.
I invited her to just enjoy the soothing, the lessened anxiety for a moment. What happens? “It felt hugely relieving at first, but then the anxiety increased—I’m afraid I’ll be swamped by anxiety again tomorrow when I wake up.’
I affirmed her fear—she probably would feel the same haunting anxiety the next morning. But I invited a new twist to the anxiety. Let your awareness be with the anxiety for a moment, like you did here. Notice how intense is it… bearable? unbearable? shape? color? Maybe remember the basketball going through the hoop. And after you’ve been with the anxiety for a moment, then let your awareness shift into remembering the group’s presence with you tonight, holding the baby—the words they said, their tone, the looks of concern and caring in their eyes. The anxiety will still be there, but shift your awareness to the genuine soothing concern you felt here. See what happens. Go back and forth a couple times between the anxiety and the soothing memory a couple times. See what happens…
Anxiety is rooted in our emotional brain and in our very nervous system. Telling our story can help us feel better, but it doesn't uproot the anxiety. Going back and forth between the anxious experience and a vividly, viscerally soothing experience--especially with community!--can actually soothe us down to our core anxiety. We don't have to be anxious about our anxiety; we can sit with the anxiety, soothe it, and, with time and intentional awareness, master it--boldly inviting it into the lively range of feelings that make us vibrantly human.
Characters and events in this article are fictionalized. Any resemblance to real people and events is coincidental.