The Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times,” seems to be active today, activating our anxiety. Globally. The news sounds more and more like the most alarming drum roll. In the past few weeks, the world has been gripped by reports of terrorist plots and attacks in the US, in France, in Bangladesh, in Istanbul, in Baghdad, in Munich. Refugees from Syria are drowning by the hundreds as they desperately seek a safe foothold. Everywhere the number of the dead mounts.
On the heels of the economic earthquake called Brexit, we’ve sustained horrifying videos of two citizens being killed by police; within days, we’ve seen a vigilante execution of five policemen during peaceful protests in Dallas. Only days later, gunshots in a small Michigan town’s courthouse left two bailiffs dead. And now, more atrocities in Munich.
The near daily announcements of tragedies all over the world are hard on all of us. It’s nearly impossible or even desirable to be immune to human suffering. But for some people, these horrific acts and the uncertainty they cause are just too much to handle. The feeling of vulnerability causes extreme suffering for some.
For more than three decades, I have worked as a psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety. Everyday I help people who suffer anxiety that results in great difficulties keeping worries in check. These clients have a debilitating propensity to overreact to stress. Compounding the problem, they have a hard time accepting the inevitable uncertainty of life.
Even when life is running smoothly, chronic worriers focus on unknown disaster looming around the corner. If you are a worrier, you suffer on three levels: cognitive, emotional and physical. Cognitive anxiety shows up as the worried thoughts you experience—the host of “what ifs” that plague you. On the emotional level, you may feel on edge or irritable most of the time. You feel particularly vulnerable because the world seems uncertain and unsafe. On the physical level, heightened stress hormones often lead to bodily ailments, stomachaches, muscle pain, headaches. To make things worse, sometimes the symptoms gang up and act in mob fashion or in an insidious sequence that creates a biological loop that feeds on itself.
When fear grips you, your muscles tense, your body releases adrenaline and cortisol hormones, and you experience psychological stress. Excessive anxiety and reactivity make it difficult to respond effectively to the ups and downs of life. So, what is a person suffering from severe anxiety to do?
The STOP Solution to Anxiety
A growing number of psychologists, myself included, coach their anxious clients in ways they can control the often-unbearable symptoms of anxiety. You can practice the following easy-to-learn techniques that I call “The STOP Solution” whenever and wherever you want to stop runaway anxiety in its tracks. Here’s how it works:
The word “STOP” serves as an acronym to mobilizes your first-responder defense against anxiety. STOP stands for:
Scan your thoughts, emotions, behaviors and bodily sensations to notice if anxiety is occurring or is about to occur;
Take a time-out. You have to take a break, to dial down your anxiety. Find a place that is peaceful and quiet where you can soothe and calm yourself.
Overcome your initial emotional flooding by using fast-acting techniques to interrupt and stop emotional escalation. Try doing an Eye Roll. Simply roll your eyes upward as if you looking at the arch of your eyebrows. At the same time, take in a slow, deep breath. Continue holding your eyes upward while holding the breath. Then exhale slowly, allowing your eyes to drift back to their original position. The Eye Roll is the first step in moving into calm and soothing yourself.
You can also use slow, deep, deliberate breathing to control runaway anxiety. Just focus attention on your breath wherever you are – in your office, in bed, in the line at the grocery. Your breath is always available to you. When you become aware that anxiety is taking you over, inhale deeply and slowly, concentrating on that intake of air, feeling it filling your lungs. You count, say, to four while breathing in. Hold the breath for a count of four. Then count to eight while you exhale slowly from the diaphragm all the way to the upper tips of your lungs. Hold for a count of four. Then, take another, deep, slow, breath and feel the calm. You took control simply by concentrating on your breathing.
Put the tools in your anxiety “tool box” into use. Two of my favorite anxiety-reducing tools are Mindfulness and the Okay Signal. Mindfulness is a way to practice calm, detached observation of your current experience. You simply focus on the situation and thoughts and emotions you are having with curiosity, as if you were a bystander watching them. You just have an internal chat with yourself: “I observe how frustrated I am. I feel my jaw clenching. My stomach is in knots.”
This non-judgmental, vantage point gives a new perspective of the charged situation and of your reactions. Mindfulness provides a view of your choices as well as a neutral acceptance of what is.
Another calming tool is called the Okay Signal. This is an anchor that can re-set the feelings of calm, and physically and cognitively remind yourself that in this moment, everything is okay. You may fear the future, but in the moment, you are okay.
To create a reminder of that truth, place your thumb and forefinger together and make a circle that signifies an Okay signal. Continue to hold the fingers together while you repeat to yourself three times, “I am okay in this moment.”
Now a final word about anxiety. It is important to acknowledge and respect your worry and your worrying self. You can welcome it and let it be. What you cannot allow is for that anxious self to take over. With these simple techniques, you can teach your worried self how to avoid overwhelm and emotional flooding; to move out of the grip of anxiety and tolerate the uncertainty in your world and the world at large. You can stay calm in the midst of chaos. Go ahead, roll your eyes at what’s happening in our world.
- When Eye Rolls are Appropriate – by Carolyn Daitch, Ph.D. - September 7, 2016