It’s 2:30 AM and Jack is wide awake. He can’t turn his mind off. He’s thinking thinking thinking about everything he has to do and hasn’t done; that comment his boss made yesterday accusing him of slacking off, his girlfriend is pushing to get married and yet all he wants is sleep. He can’t get it because his anxiety is keeping him up again. He tosses and turns, he drinks a glass of milk, he takes some Advil PM, then a shot of whiskey, nothing works. The next day he feels like a zombie and dreads what will happen that night. He bums a Zanax from his work buddy and sleeps, but at what price?
Anxiety is not to be taken lightly, it’s a mean machine and will work on your ebb and flow with great efficiency. As I did my research on anxiety and from my own experience I realized just how difficult this nut is to crack and yet it remains mysterious. As I read through all the givens, exercise, eating right, not drinking, lay off coffee, it occurred to me that no one seems to know the whole story about anxiety. It’s quite a task, it appears, to unravel anxieties mystery. Sure, we can say that anxiety is the “misapprehension of a future event” as Dr. Craske from UCLA has defined it but it’s more than that. Sure, its fear alright, some secret or not so secret dread, like a burning, mind blaring, adrenalin laced, buck naked in the middle of the night kind of wicked witch of a problem. Everyone knows what anxiety is. The feeling before we give a speech or recital, asking someone out who we want to want us or going to the dentist. All of it makes for a pretty heady mix of fear and anxiety. It feels like Godzilla is just around the corner and all we can hear are the thud of footsteps coming our way. Suddenly, bam, anxiety rips through our body.
So, what in the world can we do about it? Assuming that it’s a future thought process where something bad is about to happen to us, what then can we do? Obviously, staying right smack dab in the moment is the best medicine. Mindfulness meditation can help us to gain some ability to bring ourselves to being in the here now but what if we can’t do that? Then what we ask? The ability to turn our mind off when we sleep is another great method but that takes training. We just can’t be thinking and sleeping at the same time. Either we do one or the other. The secret to turning off anxiety is the switch. That’s right, turning off the switch.
We have two nervous systems. One is the sympathetic nervous system or the “on” switch for anxiety and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system or the “off” switch. We need to learn where those switches are and what turns them on and then what turns them off and let me tell you it’s not simple either, but also not impossible. We all have our own anxiety switches that can be thrown at any time. Let’s say we have a secret feeling that we are a fraud and it’s only a matter of time until we are found out. That’s a big switch that gets thrown. What turns it off then has to be the opposite. It is working toward a complete sense and understanding of our own competency that will turn it off. If we are afraid that something bad will happen to us or we are doomed then we have to turn that around to something along the lines of knowing that we can handle ourselves and that there is no such thing as being doomed. We can’t just say those things, we have to mean them. There’s the rub.
There are of course all the palliative’s out there and I agree with all of them but they just don’t work. Obviously, it’s more complicated. Anxiety is layered. It emanates from our very core experiences and has roots into our legacy with our family and our total experience in life. If our parents were worriers we will be too. If we never acquired that gear for self-soothing then we need to fashion one. Self-soothing is about bringing in resources that will help us calm down. For every anxious thought there is a positive one just waiting. Remember the happiest times of your life, look at pictures of when you were on vacation or good times with your family and friends, remember when you were relaxed, take some time to think about where you want to be in 10 years, think about the big picture and remembering that “This too shall pass.” Mark Twain once said “The worst things in life never happened.” He was saying a mouthful because our worst fears are never realized.
One more thing. Make sure you take time every day to calm down, don’t work right up to bedtime, make sure to exercise and stop your mind from going to the dark places by replacing negative thoughts with positive images and thoughts. The most critical part is to face your anxiety head on, talk to it directly and then learn how to turn off your mind when you are going to sleep. Most of all develop the ability to self sooth consistently throughout the day. Self-talk that is dedicated to bringing in reality, truth, perspective, wisdom and wit are the best resources for making bed time something that we are ready for. Anxiety is an odorless, tasteless gas that organizes itself very quickly and efficiently in our system. It’s a part of an early warning system that is meant to protect us. What we need to learn is how to distinguish when something is dangerous and when it is a lot of hot air. Then find all the right off switch to calm down and mellow out before we turn out the light. The light at the end of the tunnel can be just a light not an oncoming train.
Published in the Huffington Post UK