Episode 8: Understanding Anxiety

Episode Summary

In this episode we move towards understanding Anxiety better. We assess our own anxiety levels, see the difference between Fear and Anxiety and also see the ways that Anxiety can be helpful at times. Most importantly we see how Mindfulness can be helpful with Anxiety, and allows us to live full vibrant lives, even with anxiety.


You’re listening to Keith and the mindfulness community. With your host, Keith Horan. We’re talking about mindfulness and self compassion, how it can help you with stress and anxiety and feeling overwhelmed. Just bring about more peace of mind.

Thanks for being here.

Welcome to episode eight. Today we’re looking at anxiety, how to understand it, how to see it in context. And really looking at how mindfulness can help us to be with anxiety.

Hey, there, I have a cup of coffee ready, and I’m gonna jump straight into this one.

It’s a really interesting topic, looking at anxiety and how we can be with anxiety, just to kind of orientate ourselves, with mindfulness, we’re not really focusing on eliminating anxiety or getting rid of anxiety. It’s not even so much on managing anxiety. So it’s not trying to, you know, shut down anxiety, or avoid situations where we might feel anxious. It’s all about trying to understand anxiety, and really become more comfortable with us. And then the focus can be unexpanded, to have a really meaningful life. So living really well, even though there’s also anxiety there.

And let’s, let’s relate this to our own lives. So even pausing for a second to consider what’s my experience of anxiety. Like everybody, all humans experience anxiety. But for some people, it becomes a major problem in their lives. So just for a moment, considering, where do you fit in that spectrum? Is anxiety, just sort of a background issue? Or is it a bigger problem for you, and not in any analytical way looking at this, but just kind of gut feeling reflecting on your life?

And similarly, just thinking about the people you really care about the people you love? And asking the same question, I wonder for them? Is anxiety. A big problem? Is this a major issue? Or maybe not. And I’m not saying we could really tell without talking to someone, but just considering the people you know, and their reactions to things. And considering whether anxiety is an issue for them or not.

And I can see, in my case, I’m not sure why. But anxiety isn’t a major problem. It’s like a background thing that’s happening. And I can see that for other people that I really care about, it’s a much more significant thing.

So in my case, anxiety comes up, you know, it spikes in particular around certain events, or, like having to speak in public, for example. And I was a school teacher for a long time. So I’m used to speaking in front of people, but still, sometimes it really catches me, like I remember in particular having to speak in front of my colleagues, speaking in front of other teachers, that use really freaked me out. And over the years, I’ve just tried to do more of that. And even things like doing this podcast is really good for me, because I get to sort of lean into that discomfort.

Why are some people more anxious?

And why is anxiety, a bigger problem for some people and not so much a problem for others? Why do some people have much higher anxiety levels, so the research in this area is slightly changing. So initially, it was thought that anxiety was more of a genetic trace. In other words, it’s sort of passed down to us. But in the last 1520 years, the thinking is changing. And there’s the idea that the genetic part is maybe only about 30%. And at least 60% or more, is down to it being a learned behaviour. So not so much genetic, but a learned behaviour where we’re picking up anxiety and learning it from the people around us or through events and circumstances in our lives. And actually, the fact that it’s more of a learned behaviour is really good news. If it was all genetic, it’d be much harder to change. So with a learned behaviour, we can unlearn it, we can learn a different way to be, but anxiety can have a really significant impact on our lives.

So again, just pausing to consider what type of impact has anxiety had on you. And even if you’ve got relatively low levels of anxiety, by looking you’ll probably see some areas in your life where this may have held you back. So has it affected relationships or your ability to connect with people? has it affected work or your career, your health? Has anxiety played a role in your health. Have you ever noticed an impact on your energy levels, like the amount of energy you have, or the impact on your emotions are seeing that because we don’t like experiencing anxiety will push it away.

Or we might learn to avoid the circumstances that produce anxiety. And what’s the impact of avoiding those circumstances like in trying to avoid anxiety that comes with a cast. So what have we avoided doing? And I can see, for me, there’s loads of things I’ve avoided doing.

Like I mentioned, speaking in front of people, but often connecting with people, even simple things like being cautious about introducing myself, I’ve often been slow to put myself out there to put myself forward for things when maybe I should have or if I had done it can make an impact. So that’s the place where I’m working with anxiety and having this feeling of being with anxiety, and still doing the thing that I want to do.

Fear vs Anxiety

So hopefully, now you have a sense of your own experience of anxiety, and maybe ways that anxiety as restricted you. Sometimes there’s also confusion around some emotions that are similar. I mean, this comes up a lot, actually, to look in and really see what emotion is here isn’t always that easy. Lots of emotions are similar, they come up, they change from one to the other. And the emotion that’s very close to anxiety is fear.

So it’s worth trying to get a bit of clarity on what’s the difference between anxiety and fear, it is really possible to see and understand the difference between fear and anxiety. Fear is a present moment emotion. So we perceive there’s a danger or a threat or something like that, our heart rate shoots up, our breathing shoots up. And we have this very strong fight or flight kind of reaction. So it’s a response to something that’s happening in the present moment, like happening right now, in comparison, anxiety is all about the future. It’s all about anticipating something that could happen that could be harmful or scary to us. It’s all about imagining the things that could go wrong. So you start to see the difference there. And fear tends to be a very bodily reaction, like we sort of experience it in the body, like even that feeling of wanting to run away. There’s not a lot of thinking going on, it’s not a very cognitive thing.

Anxiety on the other hand, because it’s anticipating the future, imagining the future. It’s all to do with thinking, worry, ruminating, overthinking. So it’s a really cognitive thing. And of the two of them, which one is more powerful, which is more powerful fear or anxiety? Actually, fear is much more powerful. Like it completely takes the body over. What’s important, though, is that fear is usually very short-lived. It’s very strong, but it lasts for minutes or maybe hours. Whereas anxiety is not as strong. But if we’re worrying about something or anticipating something in the future, we can think about it again and again and again for days or weeks or months. So anxiety is not as powerful, but it lasts much longer.

Let me let me give you a kind of dramatic example. So fear would be you’re walking in the woods somewhere in Canada, and a bear jumps out from behind a tree. And the reaction you have is immediate fear, which I guess is to try and run away or I forget what you’re supposed to do if you meet a bear. But you know, you’re going to really experience very strong fear. Anxiety would be planning a walk at some stage in the future in the woods and becoming really anxious at the idea that you might encounter a bear. And the main point for today’s episode is that because anxiety is really a cognitive thing, it’s all to do with our thoughts. Mindfulness can be incredibly useful because it can bring us back to the present moment. So anxiety is all about anticipating the future. with mindfulness, we come back to the present moment, we come back to the body. And we can see those thoughts a little more clearly and with a little more perspective.

Okay, so there are two more things I’d like to look at. One is at the ways that anxiety can actually be helpful for us. And the second one is how mindfulness can help with anxiety. But first, let’s pause for a moment and do a short practice.

3 Step Breathing Space

A great practice to do with anxiety is called the three-step breathing space. So let’s spend two minutes doing that now. So the first step is just tuning in to your own experience right now. Just seeing what’s here.

Like how does your body feel right now?

Like tired or alert or comfortable or not so comfortable?

And how about your emotions? Can you notice? Are there any emotions around?

even seen as we’re talking about it? Is there any anxiety you can notice?

And your thoughts? What are your thoughts? Like, you know, are they fast or slow or right now? Are they loud or quiet?

And not trying to change any of this, that’s the most important thing, just being curious, really having a look and seeing what’s here.

And then the second step is just briefly noticing the breathing,

and especially the movement as you breathe in,

and the movement as you breathe out,

just a few rounds of breathing.

And the third step then is starting to come back out of the practice. So being aware of the whole body, maybe your feet on the floor,

the space you’re in, like I can hear the sound of the wind,

just really being here, and aware that you’re here, and just letting go of the practice.

Ways Anxiety can be helpful

So if you are someone you really care about, is working towards being able to be with anxiety, having a sort of healthier relationship with anxiety, it’s really helpful to understand anxiety, and especially understand the ways that anxiety can protect us, often we think of anxiety has just been this really negative thing. But there’s actually a reason that it’s here. Anxiety keeps us alert to danger. And while that kind of alertness might be a little too sensitive, or more sensitive than is helpful, it’s actually really useful that we have some alertness, anxiety is all about trying to stay safe. So it’s worth considering times when anxiety has been really helpful in our lives. So I’ll give an example.

Let’s imagine that you’re moving into a house. And as you’re bringing in all your stuff, you just consider what would happen if there was a fire in this house. So that’s alertness, that’s the mind trying to protect you and it will produce some anxiety. So imagining that there could be a fire? And then what might that prompt? Well, it might help you look and see if there’s a fire, how do I get out? Or if you’ve got, you know, kids, how would we get the kids out. Or you might think I better check if there’s a fire alarm, or a fire blanket, or a fire extinguisher all of those.

So that’s where anxiety, anticipating future events and being worried about them is incredibly helpful, it’ll make us get up and get a fire alarm, or check that the batteries working in the fire alarm and that everything’s okay, or have a plan of how to get out. In fact, in this case, you could say like anxiety could save your life. And I’m sure you can think of cases in your life maybe not as dramatic as that, where because you are anxious about something you really prepared for us like I mentioned speaking earlier, and I can see that for me, because I know I can get anxious about speaking out prepare pretty well for us.

So in that way, the anxiety actually can help me. So it’s totally fine that there’s some anxiety. And it makes sense for us to even feel some gratitude towards it, we just may want to look at how sensitive the anxiety is. And also be able to recognise the times when it’s not so helpful times when it’s becoming more of a constant background feeling.

Untangling Anxiety

So here’s where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness really allows us to see anxiety much more clearly. The challenge with anxiety and with all difficult emotions is that we get really tangled up in them, it becomes a big combination of feelings and thoughts and experiences in the body, and reactions, and it’s a big jumbled mess. And with mindfulness practice, we become a little more used to stepping back and seeing the different parts of what makes up anxiety. And in that way, it helps us to soften the anxiety.

Normally, we just tend to feel Oh, I’m really anxious, I’m afraid. And we want to avoid the thing that’s making us anxious, it’s possible to do the opposite. It’s possible to really explore what is this anxiety? Like even just considering so that’s a label that we put on a bunch of things with a bunch of experiences and we put the label anxiety on top. And what are those experiences being kind of curious. Okay, there’s some kind of butterflies or tension in my stomach. Oh, I can feel that…

Maybe a tightness in my throat. By the way, these are different for everybody. So it’s about exploring our own reactions, maybe affects my speech, maybe I feel really hard or my breathing gets faster, my heart rate gets faster. Or maybe I’ll notice my thoughts like, I might repeat thoughts like, I can’t do this, or I don’t want to do this, or maybe other critical thoughts of ourselves.

Actually, anxiety is made up of a lot of these different things. And with mindfulness practice, we become able to sort of see them more clearly. And they sort of have less power than, actually, the more intimately, we get to know what anxiety is like, the more familiar we are with it, the less impact it has.

I remember the first time I was asked to speak in front of my own staff about mindfulness, and I really wasn’t that comfortable with it. In hindsight, I should have found a way of not doing it, there was really no need. But at the time, I was agreeable, and I agreed. And so I found myself for the few weeks before being really anxious about it. And here’s how I worked with that. Every time I noticed anxiety coming up, I’d use that language first, I’d say, ah, here’s anxiety. This was usually happening while I was in school teaching. And if I could pause for a moment, just lean against a windowsill, look out the window. Nobody knows. And I just kind of reflecting or it’s a notice.

I’m getting that sort of butterflies in my stomach. There it is. And I have a little tightness in my throat. Oh, and I’m imagining things going really badly. Okay, fair enough. Okay, that’s fine. And then continue on with the day. And each time it would come up, I do that. And right up to the time that I was speaking in that meeting, I still had anxiety, anxiety was still coming up. But it was just really familiar.

That’s the interesting thing with anxiety. It’s an anticipation of a problem in the future. Actually, when I came to the event, the anxiety was no worse. It was the exact same as I’d experienced 30 times before in the previous weeks. There it is, okay, that’s fine. I have my feet on the floor. I’m feeling steady. There’s anxiety there. But I’m going to speak anyway.

So becoming able to notice anxiety, not always feeling we have to avoid the things that cause us. And just treating it as something familiar or it’s just part of life. Pushing away and fighting with anxiety doesn’t really help. It works better to have a much softer, much gentler approach to it. We don’t need to get rid of anxiety. It’s really more about opening up to the possibility of living really well, even with anxiety.

Okay, so thanks for listening. I hope that was helpful and take care.

You can find today’s show notes and more great resources at www.Keithhoran.com. And I’d be delighted if you leave a quick rating wherever you listen to your podcasts.

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