The Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times,” seems to be active today. Globally. The news sounds more and more like the most alarming drum roll.
In the past few weeks, the world has been gripped by reports of terrorist plots and attacks in the US, in France, in Bangladesh, in Istanbul, in Baghdad, in Munich. Refugees from Syria are drowning by the hundreds as they desperately seek a safe foothold. Everywhere the number of the dead mounts.
On the heels of the economic earthquake called Brexit, we’ve sustained horrifying videos of two citizens being killed by police; within days, we’ve seen a vigilante execution of five policemen during peaceful protests in Dallas. Only days later, gunshots in a small Michigan town’s courthouse left two bailiffs dead. And now, more atrocities in Munich.
These breath-stopping events have pushed aside reports of brain-eating microbes in White Water playgrounds in North Carolina and of hungry alligators in at Disney World in Florida. Almost as background noise to this fire-engine timbre, we have the off-the-chart weirdness of the 2016 Presidential election. All this in the midst one of the hottest summer on record, with Mother Nature wildly signaling for us to stop destroying our atmospheric buffer.
The near daily announcements of tragedies all over the world are hard on all of us. It’s nearly impossible or even desirable to be immune to human suffering. But for some people, these horrific acts and the uncertainty they cause are just too much to handle. The feeling of vulnerability causes extreme suffering for some.
For more than three decades, I have worked as a psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety. Everyday I help people who suffer anxiety that results in great difficulties keeping worries in check. These clients have a debilitating propensity to overreact to stress. Compounding the problem, they have a hard time accepting the inevitable uncertainty of life.
Even when life is running smoothly, chronic worriers focus on unknown disaster looming around the corner. If you are a worrier, you suffer on three levels: cognitive, emotional and physical. Cognitive anxiety shows up as the worried thoughts you experience—the host of “what ifs” that plague you. On the emotional level, you may feel on edge or irritable most of the time. You feel particularly vulnerable because the world seems uncertain and unsafe. On the physical level, heightened stress hormones often lead to bodily ailments, stomachs, muscle pain, headaches. To make things worse, sometimes the symptoms gang up and act up in mob fashion or in an insidious sequence that creates a biological loop that feeds on itself.
Talk about a vicious circle! Vicious in its propensity to seem to continually tighten its grip on you; even more vicious because once set in motion, the slightest thought, event, or threat adds to its force. A loud noise of an ambulance siren, news of a catastrophe at the other side of the world, a colicky baby, the delay of an appointment, a stuck zipper, a rude clerk — any little thing that is part and parcel of the day-do-day ticking of life–affirms the danger and vulnerability of your existence.
When fear grips you, your muscles tense, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol hormones, and you experience psychological stress. When this state becomes chronic, or even constant, both your body and mind functions at less than optimal levels. Excessive anxiety and reactivity make it difficult to respond effectively to the ups and downs of life. And ineffective responses, obviously, lead to unsatisfactory results, which add to feelings of vulnerability. So, what is a person suffering from persistent anxiety to do?
The Stop Solution to Anxiety
A growing number of psychologists, myself included, coach their anxious clients in ways they can control the often-unbearable symptoms of anxiety. You can practice the following easy-to-learn techniques that I call “The STOP Solution” whenever and wherever you want to stop runaway anxiety in its tracks. Here’s how it works:
Picture in your mind a huge, red, octagonal sign with the word “STOP” in the middle. Let that simple word serve as an acronym that mobilizes your first-responder defense mechanism against anxiety. STOP stands for:
Scan your thoughts, emotions, behaviors and bodily sensations to notice if anxiety is occurring or is about to occur;
Take a time out;
Overcome initial emotional flooding by using fast-acting techniques to interrupt and stop emotional escalation.
Put the tools in your anxiety “tool box” into use.
STOP should become a strategy and tactical guide in your ongoing fight against anxiety in any of its forms. This is how it works, and it works well.
The moment you sense that anxiety is about to overwhelm you, step out of the situation you are in. Take a Time Out. Time outs are not just for children. You have to take a break, even a short one, to dial down your anxiety. Find a place in your home or office that is peaceful and calming, a place where you can do what works best for you to soothe and calm yourself. And take that time out as often as you need.
When you settle into your time-out place, try doing an Eye Roll. It’s simple: roll your eyes upward as if you are trying to look at the centermost point in the arch of your eyebrows. At the same time, take in a slow, deep breath. Continue holding your eyes gazing upward while holding the breath and then exhaling slowly, allowing your eyes to drift back to their original position. The Eye Roll is the first, and amazingly quick, step in moving into calm and soothing yourself.
Another simple and easy stress buster you can do either in your time out or on the sly in a meeting or any public place: Tight Fist.
By alternately tightening your fists and relaxing them, you actually trick your body into becoming aware of the means of releasing the tension. The Tight Fist exercise accumulates the tension from the entire body into the fists, and then releases it, eliciting a total-body tension release. Some people find it helpful to simultaneously visualize their tension as being crushed in their fists. The exercise can be repeated as often as necessary.
Then there’s breathing, something we do automatically from the moment we cry out our first breath, to the moment we stop breathing. Focusing narrowly on the breath is a key step to controlling runaway anxiety. When we focus on a function that is normally automatic, we take control and comfort from the purposeful, self-regulating action. Slow, deep, deliberate breathing is self-soothing because the focus of attention is diverted from worry or fright to the rhythmic, life-affirming intake and release of air.
A close focus on breathing is also used in meditation practices. You can focus your attention on your breath in you office chair, in bed, on a park bench, in the line at the grocery, and yes, in the dentist’s chair. Your breath is always available to you. Here is one way to use Breathing to reduce your anxiety:
Once aware that an emotional flood is on its way, or up to your neck, you can to inhale deeply and slowly, concentrating on that intake of air, feeling it filling your lungs. You count, say, to four while breathing in. Hold the breath for a count of four. Then count to eight while you exhale, slowly and deliberately from the diaphragm all the way up to the upper tips of your lungs.. When your lungs are empty, concentrate on that to the count of four. Then, take another, deep, slow, breath and feel the calm.
With focused concentration, observe your own slow, rhythmic breathing. Observe how calming it is and note how each deliberate breath is making your body relax. Note the difference your control of your breathing has made to how you feel physically and emotionally. You took control simply by concentrating on your breathing.
Now that you have moved into calm, you can use the P in the Stop Solution: Putting the tools into practice. I teach a whole toolbox of tools to use to counter worry and anxiety. Three of my favorites are Mindfulness, Wise Self and The Okay Signal.
Mindfulness is the practice of calm, detached observation of your current experience. It’s about focusing on the situation and thoughts and emotions it has caused with objective curiosity, almost as if you were a bystander and not the subject. This non-judgmental, slightly detached vantage point will provide a new perspective of the charged situation and of the range of potential reactions you actually have. In other words, mindfulness offers a view of your choices as well as a reasoned acceptance of what is — an acceptance and openness to reality.
Mindfulness by no means is a negation of what you may be thinking or feeling. To the contrary: have an internal chat with yourself: “I observe how frustrated I am. I feel my jaw clenching. My stomach is in knots.”
Remind yourself that thoughts, feelings and sensations come and go. Like changes in the weather or cars passing on the street.
Another tool in the STOP solution is the Wise Self. We all consist of many parts. Some parts may be anxious and vulnerable and other parts are grounded and wise. When you are calm, you can access a strong and wise self as a resource for the more vulnerable parts of yourself. You can literally use the words coming from the wise part of self to support your worried self. You wise self might say to your anxious self:
- You can cope with this moment.
- You may not like uncertainty, but you can tolerate it
- You are safe.
- You can choose to stay calm.
Another calming tool is called the okay signal The okay is an anchor that serves as a cue to re-set the feel of calm and to physically and cognitively remind your self that in this moment, everything is okay. You may fear the future but in the moment you are okay.
To create a cue for that truth, place your thumb and forefinger together and make a circle that signifies an Okay signal. Continue to hold the fingers together, and repeat to yourself three times, . “I am okay in this moment.”
Now a final word about worry: It is important that you acknowledge and respect your worry and your worrying self. Welcome it and let it be. What you cannot allow is for that worrying self to take over. It can learn, with these techniques, that it is a member of a team. Teach it to be a team player by creating a break, or a time out when it is out of control. Use the techniques that dial down stress until the worrying self calms down. Cultivate detached curiosity regarding your anxiety to confront blind fear. Call on your Wise Self to talk to your worried self. With these interventions, you can move out of the anxiety trap and tolerate and accept the uncertainty in your own world and the world at large.
Life is a reality show without a script–we must all go with the flow. Going against it, at best, makes us flail wildly in place. You can stay calm in the midst of chaos. Go ahead, roll your eyes at what’s happening in our world.
Carolyn Daitch is a clinical psychologist who along with Lissah Lorberbaum is the author of The Road to Calm Workbook.