I’ve struggled with anxiety for most of my life and I’ve gotten pretty good at managing it. I recognize many of my triggers and I plan ahead when I know I might encounter a situation that sets me off. I’ve learned self-compassion, so I’m not too hard on myself. I practice mindfulness for relaxation and greater awareness, and I continue with my own therapy.
When Anxiety Pops-Up Without Warning
But my anxiety still pops up sometimes , seemingly for no reason. It’s as though my body decided all on its own to be anxious! So how do I prepare for that? The reality is that sometimes anxiety is triggered by an implicit or unconscious memory. When that happens, our bodies are responding to a memory we’re not even aware of. Most likely, it’s not an actual threat.
For me, the anxious response often happens when I’m just about to fall asleep. I’m relaxed, tired and so ready for sleep. I begin to slip into that dreamlike state when you think you’re awake but you’re actually between sleep and wakefulness. I’m all ready to drift off and suddenly I’m wide awake, my heart is pounding and I feel like something bad is about to happen. How the heck am I supposed to fall sleep feeling like that?
Anxiety that seems to come out of nowhere is common. I encounter it often when working with my clients. Many of them feel as though their anxiety is hiding, just waiting to spring when they’re least expecting it. When anxiety appears without an obvious reason, they feel like it’s controlling them.
Managing An Anxious Memory
Even though the anxiety stems from a memory, our body responds as if the threat is real. The trigger could be something as small as a sound, smell or touch of something that reminds you of a past experience that truly did feel threatening. So, how do you deal with a threat that’s not actually a threat?”
To first thing to do to help get through those unexpectedly anxious moments is to recognize that the anxiety was triggered by some memory from your past. You can even say to yourself out loud (if no one is around), “OK, Body. I hear you telling me that something just made you really anxious! I can feel it, but I know this isn’t about something that’s happening right now.” Saying it out loud, or even just in your head, reinforces the fact that the anxious experience popped up because your body remembered something from the past, not something that’s happening right now.
Next, take a few deep breaths. Slow, deep breathing can calm your anxious nervous system. If you’d like some practice with deep breathing exercises you can find out more here.
Then orient yourself in the present moment. You might be asking yourself right now, “What the heck does that mean?” It means I want you to bring yourself out of your head, where the worry is controlling your reactions, and into where you are physically — right here, right now. It’s called grounding. Metaphorically speaking, I want you to feel like your feet are planted firmly on the ground at this very moment in time, as if they were the trunk of a tree, with the roots spreading out beneath you to steady you and keep you strong.
There are a lot of different grounding strategies. I’ve detailed some of them in a video here. One of the easiest techniques I’ve found that you can do anywhere is tapping your feet. Tap each foot, alternating them back and forth, for a minute. As you do it, really pay attention to the feel of your feet on the ground, the sound they make as they tap and how the movement feels throughout your body.
Another grounding technique is to bring awareness to your surroundings. Focus on the colors you see, the sounds you hear, things you can touch and how they feel in your hand, and the things you can smell and taste. This can be hard if you’re feeling extremely anxious. In those instances it can help to pay attention in a very specific way. It’s called 5,4,3,2,1. It goes like this: Notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste.
Bringing yourself back from the remembered state of anxiousness into the present, where there’s no apparent danger, can help your body relax and help your brain recognize that the memory was in the past. You’re here now in the present and you’re not in danger.
If your anxiety is pretty intense, you might have to repeat the grounding strategy for a few rounds, but these exercises should help soothe your anxious state.
Practicing mindfulness is a great way to bring a more present awareness into your daily life. And being more present can help you manage your anxious feelings. Mindfulness groups are forming now in Annapolis and you can find out more here.
Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and the owner of Progression Counseling in Annapolis, Md. She helps busy, overwhelmed men and women manage their anxiety and stress so they can live their lives with more ease, contentment and purpose. If you'd like to know more about how individual and group therapy can help ease anxiety and stress call me 410-339-1979.