Thursday, February 16, 2017

Sensitive Folks and The Collective Choas

Many people dealing with anxiety are actually very sensitive to the energy and feelings of others. So instead of just feeling your emotions in a given situation, you feel yours and the emotions of those around you. This seems to be even moreso the case when the emotions are difficult ones, like fear or grief or anger. Imagine when those emotions are amplified hundreds-fold as is the case in our country (and even the world) today? This chaos of emotions exists in what I'll refer to as "the Collective" (i.e. the combined nervous systems/energies of the people in our country and the world today).

How do you know if you're sensitive/empathic? If you've walked into a room without knowing people were arguing and felt the "prickly" energy left in the air, or if you've walked by someone without even looking at them and suddenly felt an overwhelming emotion that wasn't there before, there's a good chance you're empathic. Other people may have told you in your life: "You're just waaay too sensitive. Relax!" (Probably didn't feel very empathic when you wanted to smack them for saying that for the 100th time!)

One of the disadvantages of being an empath is that if you don't realize that what you're feeling isn't yours at all, your mind tries to explain what you're feeling based on the state of your life at the moment. And of course it is always easy to come up with reasons why you're anxious or to think of people who've upset you. And in no time at all those emotions that you picked up from someone else have become yours.

Another challenge facing empathic folks is that unless taught otherwise, we feel like we have to take on, or absorb the suffering around us in order to be helpful. The rub is that if you absorb someone else's suffering, you don't really lessen what they are feeling, you just add yourself to the number of people who are suffering! And now that you're also in pain, how much help can you be to the person whose suffering you've absorbed?

The learning for the empath is to be able to recognize what we are reflecting from others without absorbing it. Sensitive people can be great healers and teachers because we can sense in ourselves what is happening in someone else. If we choose not to absorb or take on the other person's suffering, we can instead be present for it and available to help if help is needed. Most often anyway, friends and loved ones simply want to be seen and heard, not fixed.

In our current socio-political climate, it is critical that we are able to do this, or we risk being swallowed up by the Collective panic. How to do this? Mindfulness of course is helpful:

1. Check in with your immediate environment and ask yourself: "Am I and my loved ones physically safe in this moment?" Notice what happens in your nervous system when you can say yes to that questions (I do hope you can say yes to that question!!) Much of what causes anxiety is the fear of what we assume will be a horrible future. While it is important to look out for the future, it is just as important to make sure we aren't suffering that horrible future before it even happens. 

2. Ask yourself: "How much of this fear/anxiety/disquiet is mine? How much is The Collective's?" You may be surprised that you can distinguish this in some way.

Please note: You do not need to be responsible for the Collective anxiety! There is no way for one person to run all that fear through themselves and be functional. While it seems noble, it is in no way helpful. You are a part of the Collective, so what you do with yourself affects the whole. The more functional you are, the more effective you will be at whatever acts of service you decide to do.
3. When you have a sense of what anxiety is yours to take responsibility for, use the skills you know to regulate yourself. Long exhales; somatic grounding through feeling your feet on the floor, your seat on your chair, your back on the back of your chair;  focusing on something pleasant in your environment; meditating; making something beautiful; reading poetry. 

If you don't know any skills for managing your anxiety, now would be a good time to learn some. Check in with a mindfulness class, yoga teacher or a body-centered therapist. CBW Studio has some great workshops coming up. A daily self-regulating practice of some kind is essential self care for empaths at this point in our history. Also, while it is important to be informed, it's also really important to be circumspect in terms of what you take in. As yourself, "Is this serving my ability to be effective, or not?"

4. Once you're regulated, think about  what you can do to effectively be of service. There are tons of volunteering opportunities available. Some people have the courage and stamina for big jobs and others don't. You might just chose to be kind and compassionate to your neighbors and thus increase the level of positive emotions moving through the Collective, or donate clothes to refugees, or put a Hate Has No Home Here sign in your yard, or make calls or send emails to your political representatives.  Action is the antidote to fear. Loving action works even better. Judging and antagonizing each other? Not so much.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Loving Your Anxiety

Love Your Anxiety (Or at least get to know it)

I know it sounds crazy to even imagine "loving" your anxiety. But one of the fundamental truths about being human is that we have emotions, including anxiety. What makes us human is that we also have the ability to make meaning of our experiences and that meaning-making is what turns a simple emotion into a recipe for disaster.

Anxiety is fear of a future negative outcome. Stress has to do with not wanting to be in the present that you find yourself in. We imagine that outcome over a range from slight discomfort to a major catastrophe. 

Some amount of sympathetic nervous system activation (which causes stress and anxiety) is needed to keep us cautious and therefore keep us safe.  But the anxious state is meant to be a short-term, action-inducing state. So when anxiety runs amok, our bodies suffer. There's a fascinating book called "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" that describes all the different body systems that are affected when stress hormones predominate in the body.

Stress and anxiety happen in the mind and the body. The mind has a random thought that we believe, and the body reacts with tension and often uncomfortable sensations in the gut or the chest. Tightness in the body often restricts breathing as well which can lead to a hold host of other sensations. All this discomfort creates a state of mind that is geared toward getting away from the discomfort at all costs, leading to smoking, drinking, overeating, yelling at your loved ones, etc. Too much anxiety can even lead to a crash, which then feels like depression. 

So what's the solution? Love your anxiety (ok, I know that's not going to happen!). At the
very least, though, to change and anxious state we need to acknowledge and accept that it is happening. Anxiety is part of our self-protective capacity. It is an indicator of something that needs attention. It is a call to action. 

What's your anxious feeling telling you? Maybe it's telling you you're overworked and need a break? Maybe it's telling you that you don't feel safe or fulfilled in your current relationship or career? Or maybe it is telling you that you have some work to do on your self-confidence or ability to set boundaries? In order to figure out what it is telling us, we need to pause and listen while recognizing that the emotions don't have to control us, we do have a choice about how to feel. 

Some simple ways to work with an anxious mood in the moment:
  • Allow it to be without judging it as "bad" or "wrong" or somehow a sign of your failure. The extra layer of "shoulding" just makes the anxiety worse.
  • Be curious about what triggered the anxious state.
  • Give your anxiety something to do. Anxiety often shows up in the body as a jittery feeling. This is excess energy in need of direction. So dance, shake, shimmy, walk, run, do some vigorous yoga. Get the energy out and then try to do something a bit more quieting.
  • Notice the anxiety as body tension and let go of tension in the muscles. Tight shoulders? Let them drop. Tight jaw? Let it drop.
  • Uncomfortable sensation in the belly? That might be just the result of the abdominal muscles tensing. You might take over the tension (tighten your ab muscles) and then stop tensing, allowing the muscles to let go.
  • We humans seem to have a natural tendency to catastrophize. Maybe instead of catastrophising, ask yourself: "OK, it feels like everything could go wrong, and is there any way this could go right?"
  • Pay attention to your exhales, even making them longer. Exhaling lowers your heartrate, which gets elevated during stress.
  • Ask for help. Social interaction with a safe, supportive other is one of the ways that we humans calm down.
  • Stay away from coffee - yep, coffee drinkers have been shown to have random spikes in their anxiety during the day.
  • Look around your environment, recognizing that you're physically safe and that there aren't any threats in your immediate vicinity. You might notice and name 3 objects that you see, 2 sounds you hear, and one thing you feel with your sense of touch. or you might count all the objects you see of a certain color or shape. Anything that breaks up the circular or negative thought pattern that is making you anxious.
Of course there are many other ways to deal with anxiety, including lifestyle habits of getting enough sleep and exercise. Do you have a favorite? Share it with us!