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Hit the override button on anxiety

Dont let anxiety control you

I wasn’t aware that I could install such a thing as an Override Button in my mind.  I realise that some lucky souls seem to come with that Override Button pre-installed and automatically activated when required (and you and I know the type, they appear to saunter through life’s challenges.  I like to believe that they are the minority).  The price I’ve paid for that little missing tool is steep, and now I need to shell out for the premium Forced Override add-on in order to manage anxiety.

It’s too easy to forget that you have a choice over how you feel.  Thanks to neuroplasticity (not exclusive to the positive mindset movement, it can also help you habituate to a more negative orientation if it remains unchecked) it is easy to fall down the slippery slope towards negative bias.  This can be contextual or a general leaning, or at worse, the basis of all considerations and decisions that influence your life. And this is not the sole domain of the pessimist.

For me, it’s a cyclical thing and is usually triggered by the 3am terrors – waking up to my monkey brain confronting me about pensions, health issues (human and canine), relationships, life purpose (always “lack of” at 3am), going over conversations I’ve had and ones I want to have, and my favourite, throwing in the odd intrusive image here and there of something I dread happening or of something I wish I could unsee. Thanks anxiety!  But although I’d still eventually wake again feeling optimistic about the day ahead, there would be a theme playing in the background putting a negative slant on everything.

In addition to the above predictable and recurrent theme, there is the stacking of daily triggers which have increased and evolved over time without my knowledge (or consent!!!).  You will no doubt have your own long list – the neighbour who didn’t wave back/the angry driver who honked at you/the blood test results, and so on.  These are the unexpected, the uncontrollable, the unavoidable, but they catch us off guard, they leave us feeling unprepared, and they further reinforce the expectation of discomfort unless we step in and confront them.  These are the slightly more pervasive experiences, the ones whose novelty value deepens and cossets the beginnings of a more visceral reaction, subsequently allowing that reaction to make itself evident then attach itself to the anticipation of perceived-to-be-similar future events, although often the link is tenuous. This builds the expectation of a physical reaction, which in turn sets off the logical mind in an effort to understand and fight these physical sensations.  Unfortunately, monkey brain tends to take over proceedings and that’s when we become habituated to the perception that anxiety is inescapable now that it’s here. 

The Forced Override Button 

A little time, effort and awareness has gone a long way for me.  I’ve found the following tweaks can be useful not only for the more regular and predictable (for me) triggers, but also under a variety of circumstances in helping to prevent anxiety snowballing. The Forced Override Button add-on comes at the small price of being vigilant in recognising triggers and practicing the following:

1.Remember that feelings are temporary

Most who are familiar with anxiety will be familiar with that irrational fear of being stuck in the feeling of anxiety despite life having already proved to us previously that we do always come out the other end.  We don’t get stuck in happiness, nor do we get stuck in grief despite it’s power and all encompassing grab on us.  So why do we think we’ll get stuck in anxiety?  I believe it’s because it affects us despite the external world telling us that we should be happy and content.  It can strike when we perceive things to be going well.  Then it begins to feel systemic, like it’s our new default M.O.  It becomes faulty hardwiring.  It begins to colour how we perceive the world and makes us operate from a place of fear.  

It has taken practice, but acknowledging when the physical manifestations of anxiety occur, or indeed noticing spiralling anxious thoughts and questioning whether the reactions/thoughts are justified under the current circumstances has helped me stop it snowballing many times now.  It has become a default reaction to question whether what is happening around me or to me is having a disproportionate effect and subsequently remembering that most often the reactions will be temporary if I let them go without focussing on them.

2.Avoid self-labelling

There is a lot to be said for owning your situation, whether you’re bogged down with financial issues, suffer from health problems, generally unhappy in your situation, etc.  Naming yourself in the context of that situation (“i’m skint”, “i’m depressed”, “i’m unfit”) can be empowering and set you on the path to advocating for yourself.  However, I have found in the past, between balance issues, anxiety, and a perceived lack of independence, that naming yourself as the situation you find yourself in can be self-perpetuating.  Constantly researching and focussing on fixing yourself and allowing little time or headspace for positive experiences can really mess with your identity.  You can begin to only see yourself as (delete as applicable): an anxious person/bad with money/diabetic/useless/unreliable/unintelligent etc  Notice how easy it is to label yourself negatively.  

If you really insist on labelling yourself, stick to the positives.  I used to be dizzy, unproductive, unfit, selfish.  I now consider myself tenacious because I never stopped trying to learn how to live with health issues, and I’ve created new opportunities despite restrictions .  I’ve learnt a lot about myself over the years due to my circumstances and am trying to help others as well as progress myself, not time spent being unproductive.  I did get myself to a good level of fitness and will again after I’ve taken care of myself for a while.  Selfish?  No.  But had I been more selfish, I may have avoided some problems.

3.Create decision-free time

I’d wake at 3am, weekdays and weekends, and automatically start running through all the options for the day, thinking that I was preparing myself for efficient decision-making.  Breakfast; where to walk the dogs; do their claws need clipped? what to wear? do I need to buy food? when to work or study (flexibility with working hours is not an advantage for a procrastinator); when should I cut the grass? should I visit my parents today or tomorrow? should I exercise today? replace or service the boiler next week? should we rearrange time off? remember birthday present for nephew; should I cut the grass this morning while it’s dry? get birthday present tomorrow morning, or get dentist appointment for Wednesday and pick up present after that?   

Nowadays: 5:45am – get up, brush teeth, do stretches, tea, banana, walk dogs, breakfast with podcast, then work.  No thought required, all can be done regardless of health problems, and the podcast gradually engages my brain.  Now it’s 8am and I’m ready to plan the day.  Whether you’re time is flexible enough to spend the first two hours of the day like this, or even just ten minutes, you’ll benefit from giving yourself a routine of habit, particularly in the morning.  Decision making is mentally exhausting and can load you up with unwanted emotional distress, ie guilt, anger, overwhelm, etc,  before you’ve even climbed out of bed.  Make the basic decisions the evening before to allow you ten minutes of headspace in the morning.

4.Allocate worry time

It goes without saying, there are worries that just need to be attended to promptly.  But what about the little reminders that jump into your head and just hang there, distracting you from what’s in front of you.  Some are indeed worries, but sometimes items from the ever-growing to-do list can disguise themselves as background worries.  And the fear of forgetting about them?  It hangs there too.  Write them all down and agree a time to attend to them all later.

This is beneficial in two ways:

  1. You can clear your head and focus on the priorities.
  2. When you come back to the list later, some things just wont be as important as you perceived them to be while in an overwhelmed state.  The list will encourage you to prioritise what really needs sorted out and may well bring out the (much needed) delegator in you.
5.Yoga and meditation

Yes, I know.  It’s become a cliche.  I tried both yoga and meditation as part of a healthy routine while I was content and in good physical and mental health.  Despite believing and agreeing with the science behind it, I found meditation difficult and grudged the time spent trying to achieve an empty head.  Yoga saw me moaning about my creaky hip, unable to even sit properly cross-legged on the floor without slouching.  Arms shaking and head throbbing in downward dog.  Just not for me.

Twelve months later, after having wallowed in fatigue and brain fog, I became annoyingly aware that my mind was buzzing with nonsense.   My previously run-strong legs had turned to pale, bumpy, wobbly props that burned with lactic acid just from climbing the stairs.  Everything I was reading and listening to was in vehement agreement – yoga and meditation was the answer for anything and everything.  

My second attempt at meditation.  This time I was doing it my way – guided meditation to help me drown out not only my own (and other people’s) voices chattering away in my head, but also the tinnitus which had been playing in the background since the year before.  Yes, I did still fight for a quiet head, which incidentally is not actually meant to be the goal of meditation as I later found out (you’re meant to “sit” with any thoughts and let them pass).  After a long and sometimes entertaining journey through youtube meditation videos,  I found guided meditations that included visualisation and sound effects of walking through nature.  It held my attention enough to  distract me from the internal nonsense, and I realised that I’d been missing walking and running in the hills and how much it had served as an escape (and meditation!?!?).

My second attempt at yoga.  Something that surprised me – in an attempt to follow advice in helping myself resolve what is possibly some sort of adrenal dysfunction, I had stopped spending time sitting at a desk trying to concentrate.  I was always either standing, moving, or napping during the day.  Rarely sitting.  And now?  Now I could sit completely cross-legged for yoga.  Not a big deal, but it certainly made me address bad postural habits and finally understand the effects that sitting has on hip flexors.  As for the yoga itself, historically I had always found it boring and hard work without reward.  Not as exciting as running through forests.  Now, desperate for some physical movement that wouldn’t tax me or set me back health-wise, I took my time and followed instructions.  I understood the importance of when to breathe in and out, and ultimately became so focussed on getting it right while still relaxing, it inadvertently also became a form of meditation.  Completely focussed on one thing at a time.  And I found a teacher (on youtube) whose sequences and instructions suited me, no pausing and no rewinding.  I never thought I’d say it, but I really feel a difference physically and mentally when I don’t do yoga for a couple of days.

6.Distractions

I dont mean distraction as a form of denial.  We all know it’s not healthy to ignore your problems and just hope your anxiety simply disappears.  But the snowballing nature of it can be stopped in it’s tracks by distracting yourself.  Using yoga, exercise (which requires concentration –  I found that some repetitive, mindless exercise makes me ruminate more), hobbies, reading, anything productive, etc to push whirling thoughts AND physical sensations into the background can be enough to reduce it’s overall influence on your mood.  I have found that interacting with people I don’t know well can be enough to bring me out of the fug, whether it’s engaging in a debate on social media or going into a shop and chatting with the cashier.  Dont underestimate the power of small distractions, especially when they can be easily added to your day.

7.F*** it!

Yes, sometimes it really is that simple.  It’s the ultimate override, and if you can actually channel your inner “f*** it” when dealing with minor crises, you can adapt it to the bigger picture.  It requires advocating for your own happiness, acknowledging your bewilderment when comparing your painful reactions to others’ indifferent reactions, and ultimately asking yourself “Why the f*** should I waste energy over this?  F***it! I’m away for a cup of tea!”

also Worth remembering….

A day/week/month from now I probably wont even remember what I was worrying about, or why.

Whats the worst that could happen?  Sometimes the worry is worse that any potential outcome.

How will I deal with this?  I’ll probably deal with it the way I deal with everything.  Looking back, I’ve gotten through everything so why is this any different?

This post isn’t about minimising anxiety or defining it down to individual worries or anticipation of outcomes.  For me I go through periods where it’s my baseline state to a greater or lesser degree.  But I’ve found that being aware of how it presents itself in various guises and questioning or pausing my habitual thinking patterns around it can help me react differently to triggers.  And the more I practice…..well, it’s all about neuroplasticity.  It seems to be removing some of anxiety’s power.

I hope this is of some help.  Please don’t hesitate to contact me via my email address or contact form.  Or leave a comment.  I’d love some feedback x

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