Managing Anxiety For The Long Game

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.

Anxiety can hit you when you're least expecting it

Anxiety can hit you when you're least expecting it

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.

Feel your feet planted firmly on the ground

Feel your feet planted firmly on the ground

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. 

Photos by Alexandra Gorn  & by Ian Baldwin on Unsplash

The Journey Toward Mindfulness

midnful woman.jpg

I’ve written about mindfulness a lot since I began blogging a couple of years ago. As I entered private practice, I became aware of mindfulness as a concept, but I didn’t really appreciate how powerful it could be until I started my own mindful meditation practice and began incorporating mindfulness into my therapy practice.

I’ve Seen Mindfulness At Work

I’ve seen clients take up daily meditation and report that when they’re stressed they can recover a sense of calm much more quickly. I have clients who’ve experienced trauma begin to tune into their bodies so that they can more easily identify what they’re feeling and where, in the moment. I’ve been witness for clients who were voicing their needs for the first time. And I’ve seen the transformation when clients begin to truly see themselves and embrace all of their parts, not just the parts they like, but even their inner critical part that judges and demeans, and all the other imperfect, messy, human parts.

But I never would have encouraged clients to take up mindfulness if I hadn’t experienced myself just how powerful it can be. Being more in tune with who I am, how I feel, how my body reacts and what triggers me makes me a better partner, mother, friend and therapist. And mindfulness helped get me there.

Mindfulness and Managing Anxiety

Do I still have days when being mindful escapes me? Of course! If things are really difficult or stressful, if I get triggered and revert back to my old ways of reacting, or if I’m tired or anxious, it’s easy for me to lose sight of how to be mindful in the moment.

Self-compassion eases anxiety

Self-compassion eases anxiety

But one of the best parts of being mindful is that it helps foster a sense of understanding and compassion for yourself and for others! So on the days when mindfulness has escaped my attention, I’ve learned to be compassionate with myself. I understand that I will have hard days — everyone does. If I didn’t struggle, I wouldn’t be human. It’s just a part of who I am, and I’ve learned that that’s OK.

So, instead of beating myself up and listening attentively to my inner critic, who always wants to point out just how deficient I am, which leaves me feeling anxious and stressed, I can offer myself compassion and love. I can recognize that maybe I had a bad day and I can just be with that, in the moment. I can allow that there will be good and bad days and that one bad day doesn’t make me a bad person. It makes me human.

Mindfulness Group Practice

I know the benefits of making mindfulness a part of my daily routine and I’d like to share them with you. I have mindfulness groups beginning in October 2017 and I am accepting new group members now.

If you would like to:

  • Understand the components and practices of mindfulness
  • Feel more present in your daily life
  • Use breath, body and emotional awareness to calm your mind and connect with yourself in new ways
  • Be more compassionate with yourself and others
  • ·Use grounding techniques when your stress and anxiety show up

Then fill out this form so we can set up a time to see if this is the right group for you.  Discounts are available for early enrollment. Let’s get things started!

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.

Photo by Lua Valentia and by Jakob Owens on Unsplash





Breaking From Your Routine: Why and How

Discomfort From Anxiety- Part 2

Change can create discomfort

Change can create discomfort

In my last post, When Discomfort From Anxiety Creates Resistance,  I discussed how change can leave your mind and body feeling threatened, even when you consciously want to change (or make changes). I noted that the perception of a potential threat is often unconscious, and the reaction to it can happen so quickly that it escapes our awareness.

By way of example, I shared how the suggestion of riding bikes at a time when you routinely did other things might make you react from that place where you feel challenged or threatened. Reacting when you feel threatened might stop you from doing things differently, even when you’re the one who wants to make changes.

I recently read a passage from Mark Nepos The Book Of Awakening, Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have, that I think speaks to the benefits of stepping out of your routine into the uncomfortable waters of change:

“Risk opens safety. It doesn’t shut it down. Only through the risk to open can we inhabit and receive the strength and fullness of what is whole.”

In other words, if we don’t try new things, if we keep our routines in place because they make us feel “safe,” we stop ourselves from fully engaging in our lives. If we don’t take the risk, we won’t live our life to the fullest, and we won’t heal the parts of us that are afraid of change.

How To Embrace Your Uncomfortable Feelings

So, how can we slow things down so we don’t react before we think it through? Mindful awareness. When we begin to recognize that potential changes might trigger a threat response, we can slow things down in the moment. Our body will still react to the perceived threat, but we can choose to take a moment to feel the reaction. We can identify what happened, own it and say it out loud (or in your head, if you’re within earshot of a bunch of people).

First take a slow, intentional, deep breath. Then, using the example from the last post, you might say to yourself, “Wow, just the suggestion of riding bikes Sunday morning makes me super stressed out. It makes me feel like my whole day will be turned upside down and I won’t get anything done.” Sometimes, naming and allowing your feelings in the moment is enough to bring your mind and body back to a calmer state.

If you’re still distressed after being with your feelings, you might need to explore and get a little more curious. In these moments, it might be that the suggestion of doing things differently is triggering a distant memory, what we therapists call an implicit memory. Implicit memories bring your brain and body back in time to a place where things might have been very stressful or to a place where you didn’t feel safe. If you want to know more about implicit memories, you can read about them in my blog post, 3 Grounding Techniques To Help you Manage Anxiety.

How To Get Curious About Your Anxiety

When we feel extremely anxious, sometimes it’s hard to get to a place where we can be curious. That’s because our brain is registering a threat. It wants us to react quickly, so we need to slow things down, to get more grounded and get back to the present moment. Here’s a video that leads you through three different grounding techniques.

The idea behind grounding is to bring the more conscious, problem-solving, curious part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, back online. It gets kicked offline when our brain senses or perceives a threat. I italicized the word “perceives” because the threat might not actually be an unsafe situation, but our brain associates similar situations in similar ways and reacts as if the threat were real. By bringing the more conscious parts of our brain back online, we can then assess the true threat level.

5 Steps To Deactivate Your Stressed Brain And Get Curious

Slow things down

Slow things down

1.     Take a few slow, deliberate, deep breaths. You can count to help you really slow things down. Inhale for the count of 4, hold for 4, exhale for 4, pause for 4. Do this a few times.

2.     Notice the sensations in your body, whatever they are. Name what you’re feeling. “My head is pounding. I have an ache in my chest.” Put whatever you’re feeling into words.

3.     Now get curious. Ask yourself what feeling word or phrase you associate with your bodily experience. You might ask yourself:

a.     What am I worried about? Am I afraid of something? Take some time and pay attention to what surfaces.

b.     Can I name the feeling?  Does this feeling bring up any memories of occasions when I might have felt the same way? Again, take some time to listen and allow the feelings and sensations to arise and present themselves.

c.      What is my body telling me right now? Give yourself permission to hear whatever it might be.

4.     Be compassionate toward yourself and toward the feelings that arise. You can offer some kind words to the parts of you that are fearful. Placing your hand on your heart and acknowledging your fears in a compassionate, loving way can help ease the anxiety.

5.     Acknowledge that different isn’t always bad. Remind yourself that the discomfort you’re feeling might just be your brain believing that you’re doing something dangerous, and it’s prompted by your perception of the situation. Tell yourself, “Sometimes doing things a different way, or trying new things can feel uncomfortable, and that’s OK.”

Practicing Mindfulness Can Help

Sometimes it’s difficult follow these steps in the moment. I get it. When we’re totally stressed out, it’s hard to slow down and be mindful of our feelings. That’s why they call it a mindfulness practice; it takes doing it again and again for it to become a habit. And the good news — you can go through the above steps after the event. It’s just as helpful, and initially a lot easier, to take yourself back through the event at a later time, to feel the feelings once the perception of threat has passed. Not only does the distance from the event give you a different perspective, but also you’re less reactive, so you might find it’s easier to get curious about your emotional state.

New mindfulness practice groups will be starting this Fall. Please send me a message if you’d like information about them.  You'll learn how to bring more mindfulness into your life to help you better manage your anxiety.

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.

Photo by Avi Richards and Cristian Newman on Unsplash






3 Grounding Techniques To Help you Manage Anxiety

Have you ever felt like your anxious feelings came out of nowhere? It’s possible your anxiety was triggered by an unconscious, implicit memory. In the video above I explain more about implicit memories, the affect they have on our mental and physical well-being, and 3 grounding techniques to bring you back from the memory and into the present moment.

If you would like to learn more grounding strategies like those in the video,  and would like to be a part of a mindfulness group please reach out! New groups are forming for 2018!

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. Elizabeth provides individual and group counseling.