Calming Anxiety

Did you know that anxiety is part of your Internal Alert System? It's often an unwanted visitor, but when you pay attention to its cues, and lead yourself well, you can learn to calm anxiety in your body and help it function as it should.

To calm anxiety, you must understand that at its best it's a gift. You need it to survive. Let's explore some of the benefits of anxiety first.

Benefits of Anxiety

Anxiety is an important part of how God designed you. When respected as a valuable part of your Internal Alert System, your anxiety can:

  • signal the presence of a fear that needs your attention
  • inform you that your mind or body are overwhelmed
  • protect you by warning you of things that might go wrong
  • alert you to a potential danger and help you plan ahead
  • remind you that you’re a sensitive, tender soul

It might help to think of anxiety as a cue that some part of you is frightened. Anxiety says frenetically, What are we going to do? How are we going to solve this? Look at all that could go wrong!

Fear, on the other hand, tends to focus on a very real, present concern. Fear says simply, I am frightened.Getting to the root of your root fear is key to calming anxiety.

When Anxiety Gets Big

Anxiety tends to step in big when you haven't been taught how to face —and name—your fear. Anxiety is chaotic, future-oriented, and creative. It thinks up all kinds of things for you to worry about, things that may have no bearing on your current reality. In doing so, your anxiety protects you from facing the real things you fear by keeping you distracted. It’s often easier to dwell on the things that might happen than to implement a plan to counter real threats.

To compound the problem, anxiety often has roots in past wounds. If you never experienced safety or someone who could soothe your fear—or any emotional pain—as a child, your nervous system tends to stay on high alert. It doesn't yet know how to distinguish between big, medium, and small threats. As a result, any sign of a threat might sound a big Anxiety Alarm.

Some cues that anxiety might be getting big in your life are:

  • physical limitations (shortness of breath, light-headedness, or sleeplessness, for example)
  • inability to focus or concentrate
  • feelings of dread, chaos or being out of control
  • internal chatter, confusion, or chronic worry
  • compulsive behaviors, such as compulsively cleaning or meeting needs
  • catastrophizing, such that problems seem bigger than they are

If you notice yourself struggling in any of these ways, your anxiety needs your compassion, care and attention. Your internal system is so activated that it’s actually keeping you from getting the relief you need.

The trick is to acknowledge your anxiety so that you can get some healthy distance from it. It's a paradox. As you name anxiety, this part of you feels seen. You begin to differentiate from it.

Calming Anxiety

Psychologists use the term "differentiation" when they speak of gaining healthy distance from another person. Similarly, internal differentiation refers to gaining distance from your thoughts and feelings. Differentiating internally empowers you to recognize that anxiety is not all of who you are—it’s just one part. That realization alone can bring relief. (For more on how to differentiate, check out my book with Kimberly Miller, Boundaries for Your Soul.)

To stay within healthy boundary lines inside your soul, your anxiety needs you to:

1. Recognize and name it as one part of who you are.

2. Reconnect to your body.

3. Get curious about the fear hiding underneath.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of this second step. Anxiety tends to disconnect you from your higher thinking. Instead, your autonomic nervous system starts to over-function. This activation happens in your body, so the antidote for it needs to address the body. Trying to think your way out of anxiety is like fighting a fire with air. It's the wrong tool for the problem.

Instead practice calming  your nervous system in the following ways:

  • Take several deep breaths, all the way into your abdomen.
  • Move your body, staying aware of the way your feet feel as they connect with the ground.
  • Listen to music, which can help you access a different  part of your  brain.
  • Ask for a hug or to be held by someone who is safe.
  • Play with animals or get close to nature.

Caring for the Fear Underneath Anxiety

After you calm your body, begin to get curious about anxiety, as if she were a young child. You might locate where you feel the anxiety in your body. Then ask yourself:

What are you afraid would happen if you stopped working so hard? At first you might notice thoughts like, “You'll fall apart!” or "You need me to survive!" Gently acknowledge those concerns, until this part of you senses your compassion. Then see if you can get clarity about the deeper fear underneath the anxious thoughts. You're starting to get down to the root, so stay present with yourself. If it helps, invite God to be near you as you reflect.

Here are some examples of the fears that often hide beneath anxiety:

  • I don't have what it takes.
  • I’ll be rejected or misunderstood.
  • I’ll disappoint someone.
  • I'll be proved a fool.
  • I'll make a mistake.

Notice if it's a big, medium, or small fear. If it's medium or big, ask yourself:

  • What can I do to care for myself?
  • What steps can I take to get support?
  • Are there ways I can prepare?

Getting to the root of your fear underneath the chaos of anxiety is the sacred soil of healing. I am frightened are powerful words to acknowledge. You may not be able to "fix" the fear—that's not what it needs. Instead, you can honor it as a vulnerability, allowing it to help you draw near to God and to trustworthy people, so that you can get the care you need.

Try to keep your small, fearful self close to you. . . .Let it teach you its wisdom; let it tell you that you can live instead of just surviving. Gradually you will become one, and you will find that Jesus is living in your heart and offering you all you need.

—Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love

*Today's blog past is based on excerpts from Chapter 10 in Boundaries for your Soul: How to Turn Overwhelming Emotions into Your Greatest Allies