When balloons get away,
they go into the sky
where it’s blue with no clouds.
there are raindrops
and they pop in the rain.
Then people see the balloon parts
coming down in the rain.
— Logan Raymond, 2018
What do you think might be the most common mental health concern these days?
Each year, this clinical condition impacts about one-fifth of adult Americans and one in four in Australia. Large-scale epidemiological surveys report that 33.7% of the world’s population will be affected by this condition at some point in their lives (Bandelow & Michaelis, 2015).
This emotional distress starts young. According to Twenge (2000), the average American child in the 1980s had higher levels of this emotion than child psychiatric patients in the 1950s. More recent numbers suggest that about 20% of boys and 30% of girls between the ages of 12 and 17 have had a related diagnosis (Schrobsdorff, 2016).
This emotional distress is clinical anxiety. A common enough feeling, the natural human emotion of anxiety will be familiar to us. Its menacing cousin in a disorder cloak is what ushers along telltale signs of excessive worry that becomes growingly difficult to control. That considerably impacts concentration and focus, even on brainless tasks. That keeps you up at night worrying about what-ifs and implausible doomsday scenarios that just won’t dissipate in your headspace. That keeps you so wound up that you have trouble relaxing, your muscles have tightened and your head is pounding.
Clients are often acutely aware of their anxiety symptoms because anxiety is not only a cognitive manifestation, the body too is sending out all sorts of distress signals. These can vary from person to person. One client reported intense chills he could not put into words; another recalled severe tension around the neck and shoulders that very likely incited constant migraines. Almost all will experience the many signs on the laundry list of usual suspects.
The upside of being aware as well as physically experiencing anxiety is that we will know that something is off and hence can act on this discomfort. Some of us start out in the doctor’s office, fearing warning signs of something physiological. Once organic origins are ruled out by a physician, then the journey across emotional terrain to conquer the worry demons begins.
Even though our physical bodies react similarly, our mind is a free spirit, thus for treatment to be effective, it needs to be tailored for one’s presenting triggering contexts. In addition, for some people, being anxious may be part of a dominant personality trait that does not cross the threshold into disorder. Everyone’s poison is different.
The degree to which symptoms manifest and contexts within which they occur are essential elements to consider. A handful of musician clients related having no anxiety when performing music; their horror was getting through the throngs of crowds to get to their safe space that was the stage. For some others, being the centre of attention, under the spotlight, will be what is anxiety-provoking. Factors in assessment and treatment need to be multifaceted. Formulaic strategies are not incorrect in themselves, just that we do not exist in a vacuum.
So if you are experiencing some difficulties with anxiety, what next?
Obtaining reliable psychoeducation from a credible source can be a comforting embrace during distress that offers knowledge, reassurance, and guidance. Fact sheets on anxiety by trustworthy mental health and advocacy groups (e.g., here) are a first step as they will provide quick, easy, and most importantly, accurate facts for a reality check on your signs and symptoms. Apart from sourcing psychoeducation and therapy, habitual practice of simple self-soothing strategies can lessen anxiety symptoms outside of a therapy room. In particular, deep breathing, grounding and mindfulness are excellent practices to regulate emotions.
Again, the method is there, the content will vary based on what works for you.
Counting (and recounting) physical items in your surroundings and spelling long words out loud are two different methods of grounding that will connect you with your present moment. The poem that introduces today’s piece echoes this application through mindful observation, quite literally along the lines of practising “RAINDROP” summarised by insight meditation teacher Michele McDonald on how to manage uncomfortable emotions:
Recognise what is going on …
and not Distract yourself from your experience
Accept what is going on by allowing it to be, as it is …
and not Resist reality
Investigate what is happening …
and not be Oblivious to your experience
Non-identify (i.e., not identifying with what is going on) …
and not take things Personally
What might this look like in practice?
Recognise … and acknowledge the rain. Notice the anxiety and related bodily sensations that are gathering in you. Don’t use other activities to distract yourself from this experience.
Accept, without judgment, that this is what it is, for this moment. Often, the counterproductive action that people might take is quite the opposite: fighting the emotion, pushing it away, or burying their heads in the sand and hoping that the situation will then just go away.
Investigate the present experience with curiosity and mindfulness. How is your body reacting? What feelings do you have? What thoughts are in your mind? Be interested, not disinterested, in your experience.
Not identifying. Not getting emotionally entangled with and railing against the heavens for pouring. Not taking things personally. Remember, the emotion is the emotion. It is not you.
Take a deep breath. And try these four steps the next time a nerve-racking situation rattles you.