I was in the middle of a rip-roaring anxiety attack and yet 72 hours earlier, I was free. Free of doubt; of deadlines; of internal drama.
Impermanence, that’s what happened. Good old, trustworthy impermanence.
I’d spent an incredible weekend in Daylesford on a silent meditation retreat. We entered “noble silence” on Friday evening (the luxurious kind of quiet where there’s absolutely no expectation for pleasantries or chitchat), and by Sunday lunchtime, I was a different person.
Similarly to my first meditation retreat, my mind was clear, my soul nourished, and my footsteps light. I’d experienced pure bliss, heart-wrenching realisations, and what felt like rivers of tears.
It was perfect.
When I arrived home on Sunday evening, the sky seemed magical, the cicadas musical, and as though everything had been brilliantly colour-corrected.
Within three short days, I was a ball of anxiety.
In the space between serene clear-headedness and now:
- I’d received some disappointing news
- My workload seemed like it’d tripled
- Life admin was piling up
- I had a looming decision to make; and
- Three public holidays in a month felt like a threat rather than a treat.
How could it all have changed so quickly?
Because unfortunately (or fortunately), nothing lasts. I couldn’t hold onto that blissful state any more than an anxious one could be tattooed in permanent ink.
Phew, that’s a relief.
Thankfully, this time was different – I had skills.
What To Do About Spinning Out
I can’t say this process was at all linear, but here’s how, by the end of the day, I went from spinning out to chilling out (without the need for numbing out.)
1. Recognise What’s Happening
It sounds obvious but the first step is to recognise what is happening. Having some awareness of the mental state we’re in.
“I’m spinning out here. I can’t concentrate. I keep switching between tasks. Where’s my focus?”
2. Feel it in the Body
Next, move attention into the body. What are the physical sensations?
- Heart rate’s gone haywire
- Stomach feels queasy
- Abdomen’s gone hard
- Whole body tensing
- Eyes prickling with tears
I recognise these familiar body sensations. What are they pointing towards?
3. Name the Emotions with Precision
Ask yourself: what emotions are here?
Recalling Karla McLaren’s Emotions Vocabulary list, I identified the presence of four emotions; three of them from the “Fear Family” and one from the “Sadness Family.”
- Anxiety – the future-oriented internal alert-system that tells us tasks need completing and deadlines are looming
- Fear – the instinctive feeling that something isn’t quite right; in this instance a gentle tug to evaluate my options
- Confusion – a time-out from anxiety and fear when there are too many things to process all at once.
- Sadness – a feeling of releasing what I’d been bottling up or trying to hold together
4. What Do These Emotions Need from Me?
Emotions come forward with vital information to act upon. They’ve been described by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio as “action-requiring neurological programs.” This means emotions arise with a purpose, and when we’ve taken the appropriate action, they recede back to their resting state.
- Anxiety wants me to do things. Mark tasks off a list. Get shit done.
- Fear wants me to use my intuition and instincts in the moment.
- Confusion wants me to pause and take a time-out from the overwhelm.
- Sadness wants me release and let go of things I’ve been holding onto.
5. Take the Action That Feels Right
When clusters of emotions come up like this, they can be vying for our attention; pick me! pick me! pick me!
Anxiety wants to feel like we got this; we’re in control. It wants us to do all the things.
But fear is saying; whoa, hold back, something’s not quite right. Let’s not do all the things till we’ve got all the information.
So in this instance it was confusion to the rescue, who said – let’s not do anything till fear and anxiety have worked their shit out. Let’s take a break.
Having a vague understanding in the moment of what was going on, I decided to listen to my confusion and appease anxiety by taking a time out to clean the car. Anxiety piped down for a bit, because, hey, at least I was doing something; and confusion was happy that I was taking a break from all the intellectualising that was getting me nowhere.
Throughout the course of the day, I also:
- Spoke to a friend, which was a healthy distraction that helped bring forward happiness and contentment;
- Practised self-compassion by cancelling an appointment that I just didn’t have the time or headspace for;
- Had a cry, which helped to release the build up of anxious energy, relax me, and feel rejuvenated; and
- Asked my husband for his perspective on a decision that I needed to make, which helped confusion dissipate and also let anxiety know, we got this.
6. Conscious Questioning for Anxiety
Once I’d spent a couple of hours doing physical labour, and experiencing contentment for how beautifully the car had come up, I was also able to sit down and “consciously question” my anxiety.
How to Consciously Question Your Anxiety
From Embracing Anxiety
by Karla McLaren
Even though anxiety wants us to do all the things, it doesn’t mean we can or we should. Karla’s list of questions helps us discover our strengths, determine where we can delegate, and prioritise what needs doing now (and what can wait till later.)
- Have I achieved or completed something similar in the past?
- What are my strengths and resources?
- Do I need more information?
- Can I delegate any tasks?
- Are there any upcoming deadlines?
- Is there anything I’ve overlooked?
- Can I contact (or read about) someone who has successfully done this thing?
- What do I need to do to prepare?
- What is one small task I can complete right now?
- Why is this important?
Simply reading this list might be enough to take the heat out of the emotional intensity that feels so destabilising.
7. Practise Self-Compassion
Finally, having compassion for oneself during overwhelming emotional episodes is so key. Recalling we’re not alone in experiencing intense emotions, that this experience will indeed pass, and that there’s nothing broken about us having difficult emotions, is perhaps the most healing action we can take.
Recommended Meditation: R.A.I.N