There are many ways to release anxiety. We might practice yoga, go for a swim, do a breathing practice, or connect with a friend. When we’re jumping out of our skin, we need strong action to down-regulate our nervous system. When we feel a bit uneasy and unsettled, we might choose something less intense, like witnessing our thoughts and taking a few deeper breaths.
Many people release anxiety through talking. It could be a stream of consciousness flow of words about nothing in particular, or show up as compulsive catastrophic thinking where we are drawn into endless possibilities of what could go wrong. These can be internal (mind chatter) or expressed in words to someone else.
It is natural for one layer of the mind to generate thoughts and much of this is driven by the nervous system and our perception of threat. When we entertain “what-if” scenarios, we are trying to prepare for danger so we can keep ourselves safe. Unfortunately, we can imagine this so vividly that our nervous system does not know it is not happening in real life. This creates a feeling of impending doom and heightened hypervigilance.
We feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and complexity of what we’re dealing with. We have the disconnection and core deficiency beliefs of childhood trauma. We have present day stresses and fear about family, money, isolation and mental health. We scramble to keep up and wonder how we are going to ever find a way to heal and enjoy life.
Here are some ways to self-regulate your nervous system and down-regulate your perception of threat:
Somatic mindfulness inquiry
Trauma is stored in our body. To heal, we need to be aware in the present moment as we work systematically with thoughts (images and words) connected with sensations, feelings and energy in our body. Working with thoughts, we might tap gently on our forehead or open our eyes and see an image in a frame on the wall across the room. We locate and describe sensation in our body and notice the space around it. We learn to witness and stay aware in our body instead of going into thinking and problem-solving.
What is a situation that is bothering you?
Pause for a moment, take a deep breath and notice your whole body, head to toes. Of everything stressful that comes to mind, choose one thing.
Let’s use an example of being left out of a get-together with friends. Notice the thoughts that come up. You might be angry. How dare they leave me out! After all I’ve done for them, why are they snubbing me now? Did I do something wrong? Are they mad at me?
Connect with sadness and betrayal
Rest one or both hands on your heart and let yourself feel the hurt. There is the present moment situation and it lands hard because of our past. Maybe you were bullied or ostracized when you were in school or a best friend dropped you and was mean. Maybe you were the scapegoat in your family and always felt left out. Stay present in this moment and grounded in your body. Notice your feet, seat and your breath as you feel your emotions. It is normal for our past experiences to inform the present. That is how our system works.
You don’t have to prove that you are/were hurt
Many children feel unseen and unheard. No one notices we are suffering and scared. Our parents are disconnected or maybe they are the ones hurting us. No one is protecting us.
Sometimes we talk as a way to justify that we were hurt. We need to be seen and validated. If you find yourself ruminating or ranting, see if this is part of the issue. People have this odd way of both minimizing what happened to us and needing validation that indeed it was traumatic. This is normal. Just because someone had it worse does not mean our experiences weren’t scary or painful. Just because someone else might not seem to be as hurt by a similar experience does not mean we are wrong or “too sensitive”. You don’t need to prove it to a jury.
Work with one thing at a time
Our brain associates past experiences with present ones to help us assess threat. This can be distracting and contribute to overwhelm. In the above example, what is grabbing your attention and feels most intense? If it is being scapegoated in your family, let yourself focus just on that. Tune into your body and let yourself remember one incident. How old were you? Do you have visual memories of it? Can your adult self connect with your younger scared self? Breathe and stay grounded in your body.
Don’t let your mind go into other experiences that “prove your case”. You might notice a flood of memories of other times when you felt left out. Come back to your body and stay with one at a time.
Some of us find that as we speak, we learn and clarify what is troubling us. That is also normal and we are not trying to shut that down. It can be a way to connect more deeply within. It is the disconnection that comes from anxiety talking or ranting that is not helpful.
Mindfulness of the energy of talking
Develop a practice of noticing internal thoughts and what you speak out loud in relation to anxiety and the patterns above. Talking can be a way to disconnect from our body. It inhibits feeling.
Talking and conversation are ways we connect, understand, and share our authentic selves. We learn about the world and each other. By staying present in our body and the present moment, we share ourselves and experience intimacy.