Crises generate anxiety. That anxiety, however, is likely to be ‘right’ for that moment. Humans experience anxiety in strange situations. There was a child psychologist, Margaret Ainsworth, who demonstrated how this works for infants.
Truth be told, I have not changed that much even though I am at the other end of the life span!! Anxiety in the face of strangeness is ‘situationally appropriate’, as people like me say.
Anxiety arising for no apparent reason is another thing. This is termed ‘generalised anxiety’ and, as it persists, it can become a disorder. The experience you have in your body may be much the same for both anxious experiences, but the safe experiments that are required to work with crises and generalised anxiety are very different.
Let’s examine some of the similarities and differences:
• Although anxiety will tend to make us feel bewildered, unreal, or unsteady, these feelings are normal bodily reactions to threat.
• Having these sensations does not mean you are ill. They may be unpleasant and even frightening but they are not a problem in the short-term. Usually, nothing lasts for ever.
• In this situation, we experience our anxiety as, indeed, lasting for ever. This arises when we magnify our feelings – unintentionally or not. Often this happens out of context – there is no obvious reason for the feelings and sensations. This rather normal reaction is often labelled ‘catastrophising‘. In common language, we talk about getting things out of proportion. However, to an anxious person those words can be an irritant; their feelings are real. Reassurances and apparent criticisms do not ease the discomfort.
Catastrophising here and there need not be a problem; newspapers do it all the time. However, when the sensations you experience in your body persist, it has the potential to do emotional and even physical harm over the longer term.
Why is this?
The anxiety created when our ‘internal alarm’ goes off is intended to last only a short time; the time it takes us to kill off a threat, or escape from it or, sadly, to be killed by it. When those reactions persist and do not decay, then physical and emotional harm is feasible, e.g. making us withdraw from company, argumentative and difficult to live with. Unfortunately, the thoughts racing around our smarter and younger sibling can keep things going long after the threat has diminished. We are able to generate a virtual world of woolly mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers.
The big difference about crises is that they are a real threat to our safety and security. It will create an immediate need for action. Anxiety exists to give us the energy to act; to move instantly with a laser-like reaction. However, it can tempt us into actions that, in the cool light of day, may be regretted. In the section on Flight, Fight and Freeze, I have made a virtue out of action. That said, some actions will be impulsive – not always under conscious control – and this can create unwanted and unintended consequences. I use the example of domestic abuse – in which some-one hits out – as just one such unwanted outcome.
Therefore, in developing your safe experiments, be aware of different forms of action:
- those that are immediate, impulsive and seemingly outside your control; they may or may not get you to a safe place.
- the temptation to act impulsively after the event because you are remembering the receding threat.
- a considered action based on evidence that the action is likely to have a preferred and valued result.
An obvious example is the temptation to leave a job or home because it seems the ‘only’ solution. Keep in mind that you can still leave home and job if, indeed, it proves the considered thing to do. Even so, in the immediate aftermath of any incident, take time to think this through and, preferably, talk it through with some-one who is trustworthy and discreet.
PLEASE NOTE: this is not a recommendation for NOT running away in certain situations. If you feel unsafe, running away to a safer place is likely to be the right course of action.
The key point here is: can stopping, listening, watching and reflecting lead you to explore other safe choices, rather than up a cul de sac from which it may be difficult to escape?
SOME PRACTICAL SAFE EXPERIMENTS
• Faced with a current crisis – do not run away from the experience. Can you ‘look it in the eye’ with a body scan? Notice what is really happening to your body at the moment, and what it is telling you now. Just notice your thoughts and experiences. Say ‘hello’ to any of the self-critical messages without dwelling on them.
- In particular, notice the sensations, however uncomfortable they may be. If necessary, talk to them as ‘part’ of you (they are part of you – like it or not, even if not your best friend!)
• When you feel anxiety: use breathing exercises to relax, and let go. Make yourself as comfortable as possible. Sit for a while. Do not drive or be prompted into hasty actions. Take your time.
• If necessary, describe the outside world. What you can hear and see, or what is going on it. Do it in the first person, that is, “I see … I hear ….”
• As you wait and watch just notice that things can change. How do they change and in what way? Use the Subjective Units of Discomfort (SUDS) on a scale of 1 (for little) to 10 (the very most) to monitor how the strength of feelings go up or down. Less often they may stay the same.
• Be curious and do lots of safe experiments. What do you learn from the things that seem to go wrong as well as the successes in your life.
• Be aware of ways in which you can be in control of your body and your situation. You may surprise yourself and find some controls you did not know you had.
• When falling into catastrophising (it may not help, but we all do it!), use the diversions and distractions you have designed for yourself. In the heat of the moment, such strategies may be less likely to work. Indeed, the strategies can become a disappointment to you because they appear not to work. This may deter you from using these strategies at all.
Please do not throw babies out with the bath water. Timing is crucial. Diversion and distraction seem best suited to changing your habits. Some need to be practised several times a day in a random fashion, rather than in the heat of the moment. In particular, I would want you to very aware of the outcomes you obtain from your experiments. Clarity of thinking is one things that tends to vanish in a crisis!
With a following wind, we can learn from small defeats and further experiments can increase our confidence in our ability to respect our fears and anxieties.