“Human beings are extremely difficult to kill,” said the nurse practitioner I was seeing at the time.
She was trying to convey to me how resilient we are as a species and provide some reassurance.
I struggled then with illness anxiety.
And, if I am totally honest, I still deal with it to this day. I’ve actually been symptomatic since adolescence, but it was not until my brother’s death from colon cancer, and my subsequent thyroid scare, that the fears took on a life of their own.
I know that I am not alone, I work with clients struggling with anxiety on a daily basis. And if that is not enough, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America about 40 million adults struggle with anxiety, and illness anxiety is just one form of it.
Recently, as part of my own personal therapy, I was working on this anxiety and made an important realization. I pinpointed that it is not really my thinking that brings on the sudden surge of desperation I sometimes feel when experiencing an ailment.
Initially, it is actually a visceral response. My body senses into a pain or “abnormality” and my heart beat immediately increases, my palms become sweaty, and my stomach sinks with a feeling of dread. It is insanely uncomfortable and, when this happens, my thoughts go into full gear. You see, my thinking perpetuates the anxiety but does not spark it. And this makes total sense: we are wired to survive.
Our lower brain or “reptilian brain” has been keeping us safe through millennia. When triggered, our brain and nervous system go into high alert and immediately engage our survival defenses. This part of the brain has evolved to keep us alive and, as Linda Graham, author of Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-being writes, “Survive first, thrive later: [is] the motto of the lower brain.”
This is different for each of us, but for me, I instantly go into a freeze response. I truly feel terrified. Once this subsides, I automatically engage my fight response and begin to try and control the situation with my thoughts while becoming mistrustful of objective evidence. In the past, this could be so overwhelming that I would even mistrust my doctor, a 40-year veteran in the medical field.
The reason for this isn’t something I can easily see at the time. Once my mind becomes engaged, I spiral down into “negativity bias.”
Diane Poole-Heller, Somatic Attachment and Trauma Expert, speaks of this bias as the impact of our early conditioning. Our body and our brain, specifically the amygdala, register early experiences, creating a road map for how we move in the world. Unless we have learned coping mechanisms that help us adapt to difficult situations, we struggle to self-soothe and the anxiety builds. We are more vulnerable in difficult situations, quickly bypassing our adult self by igniting the fight-flight-freeze response—our bodies most fundamental survival instinct.
This all seems like a lot, but it happens almost instantly. We can really “flip our lids,” as Dan Siegal, Clinical Professor of Psychology at UCLA and author, says. We initially lose sight of the rational and instead respond using instinct alone.
This is not to say that if we suffer from anxiety, we are somehow doomed to irrationality. Not at all. This response is limited to those situations that trigger us and, more importantly, we have tools to help us overcome it when it occurs. Importantly, intentional awareness of our responses and accessing/learning coping mechanisms can help us to develop our sense of resilience and lead much more comfortable existences.
So, how do we do this when we have spent years struggling with anxiety and feel like most things don’t work?
Here are four tips to help you build resilience and begin to heal from anxiety:
1. Become aware.
There is evidence that suggests replacing a negative or critical thought with its opposite can begin to create change. This can be helpful for some, but, as I mentioned earlier that for me, the initial response is visceral. There is such vigilance and activation in my nervous system that I can’t just put a Band-Aid on top. I have to focus on the physical and bring attention to the discomfort. This is true for all kinds of anxiety.
The reality is that anxiety is both postural and physical. Meaning, we experience it in the body and even the way we hold our bodies is related.
When I bring attention to the discomfort, I essentially interrupt the process. This helps keep me away from the stressful and frightening thoughts that may otherwise make it unbearable.
The 13th century poet, Rumi, writes about this invitation in the poem The Guest House: “This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all.”
2. Connection with self or others.
We know that so many of our negative biases stem from old emotional wounds. Many of us learned early on that the world is not safe. We then move into our future believing that we can’t be comfortable if we want to survive.
This, however, is unequivocally not true. What has happened is that we have coupled these negative biases with memories, feelings, sensations, or thoughts and these have become triggers. When we connect, meeting others with our authentic and vulnerable selves, we begin to create reparative experiences that shift our worldview.
The prefrontal cortex begins to integrate the new information and the body begins to take in the new experience. Positive experiences with connection help us begin to shift our worldview to include beliefs like, “life works out for me,” or “no matter what, I’ll be okay.” And, connecting with others helps sooth our parasympathetic nervous system. We begin to down-regulate, shifting from the survival defense and accessing more rational thought.
3. Get up and move.
Vanda Scaravelli, a prima ballerina, says “Movement is the song of the body.” What I have come to understand about trauma is that at its core, it is rigid and unyielding. It has no space for fluidity. Our energy becomes “stuck” in our nervous system and needs to move. We can all sense this in our bodies. Have you ever unconsciously tapped your foot when nervous or fidgeted with your pen? Have you ever found yourself making a fist or bracing for what’s next? Or have you just been too fatigued to even care to engage? These are simple examples of how we can physically showcase energy that is trapped in our bodies. We may experience hyperactivation or hypoactivation, responding in ways that may be too much or too little for the situation.
So, we have to move. Sometimes when we feel anxiety, we believe we must “calm down” by trying to regain presence with meditation or the like. It is true that this can be helpful and, ultimately, healing. It’s just that sometimes the energy is too much to settle. This is when walking meditations, yoga, and other physical activities can come into play. Use your body; it keeps the key to healing.
4. Give yourself a break.
You may believe that you can be prepared for what comes next by worrying. The reality, however, is that there is no preparing for the “bad thing” we are afraid of; by trying to do so, we become so hyper-focused on this “Big Bad” that we have no perspective about what else surrounds us.
In a sense, this is a form of tunnel vision, a common example of the rigidity that is trauma and we are going to have a really hard time trying to think our way out from these anxious moments. We are going to have to pave a new path for ourselves, and we will not always prevail. This is where self-compassion fits in.
Kristen Neff, one of the most prominent researchers studying self-compassion, says that we “must stop judging and evaluating ourselves.” Instead, we should embrace who we truly are—our strengths and our failings. It sounds easier than it can be sometimes. Most of the time, we happen to be our own worst critic.
So, start small; explore how you might respond to a friend if they were going through something similar to your pain. Become your own “compassionate observer,” as Neff states, and become intentional in your awareness of your inner critic. You can journal, practice self-compassion meditations, or use nurturing self-touch. Basically, try what works for you, so that you can begin to rewire your brain for resilience.
I mentioned previously that I still struggle with anxiety. So, why should you believe that any of these suggestions work?
The answer: we have to try something.
I may still struggle with my own pain, but I have learned the steps I need to take in order to lead a more fulfilling and comfortable life, as have many of my clients.
Take a chance. What have you got to lose?