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This is my second post on 'bad feelings'. Part 1 focussed on anger and this part will focus on anxiety. I’m using the phrase ‘bad feelings’, but current understanding of emotions tells us that we are better off not labelling emotions as bad or good. A typical part of meditation or emotion regulation practice you may have come across is to ‘non-judgementally observe any thoughts or feelings that come up.’ But this can be difficult: many of us have had bad experiences with some of those not-bad emotions. It can be a tall order to tell yourself to be non-judgemental while feeling yourself slipping into the grip of something like anxiety, all too familiar with the suffering it can lead to.

So let's look at the parts of ‘bad-emotions-that-we-are-not-judging’ that are a little easier to accept. In the middle of an experience with these emotions, getting into logical argument and weighing up the pros and cons of feeling anxious may or may not work, but if you can shift to a more neutral way to see those feelings generally, outside of those episodes, it might help to minimise some of those 'emotions about emotions' that can drag us down further.

Anxiety

Anxiety can be mild or full on panic. These days there is a lot more talk about anxiety, and you might be familiar with the associated problems, whether directly or indirectly. What we tend to talk less about is that sometimes anxious, edgy feelings serve a purpose. And recognising that might even help improve your relationship with anxiety.

Super-ninja reflexes and prehistoric heroes

Are there tigers in this forest?

A while back I saw a compilation of real-life footage of mothers using ninja-like reflexes to catch something before it crushed their baby, or haul their baby out the way of an oncoming disaster, and similar amazing feats. Each time they reacted so fast it looked almost like they knew what was about to happen, before it happened.  In some cases they reached out to block something without even looking at it. Whether or not they had some spooky prescient ability, they certainly acted before having conscious awareness of what they were doing. This is the Autonomic Nervous System at its best: detecting a threat and triggering a response, bypassing the part of the brain that involves conscious thinking or decision-making. You probably know of ‘Fight or flight’. It’s the process in the brain that was designed for our cave-dwelling days. Is that a rustle in the bushes? No point in waiting to find out how sharp the teeth are, just act quickly. Adrenaline surges and the body leaps into action. The anxious brain activates this mode more easily. So maybe anxiety is like your super power. Not convinced? Ok here’s another:

Performance

Sports psychology and performance research shows that, when it is not also accompanied by depression, people can feel pre-competition anxiety at the same time as happiness, and feeling anxious is associated with top performance for athletes. Anxiety is a ‘high activation emotion’ that tells the brain to dial up the effort and mobilise the body’s resources to face the demands of the challenge ahead.

Athletes are not the only performers who have observed the benefits of pre-performance anxiety.

In her series ‘Breathe Into It’, singer Camila Cabello talks about her experiences of crippling anxiety before shows (and in general). Before one performance in particular, she recalls ‘barely holding it together’, but her manager said it was one of her best ever performances. She quotes Beyonce: ‘Nerves are energy’, and says that she must have somehow channelled her anxious energy into her performance.

Learning and memory

The stress system, powered by the hormone cortisol, is an essential piece of kit. Veronica O’Keane, a clinical psychiatrist and neuroscientist, and author of ‘The Rag and Bone Shop: How we make memories and memories make us’, points out that stress is ‘not just good but necessary for sustaining life, and it is only in chronic, or long-term exposure to stress that it can be destructive.’ As part of the natural working body, cortisol goes up and down throughout the day, and is usually higher in the morning. It does useful things like increase availability of sugar to the brain and muscles, helping them to work better. O’Keane prefers to think of cortisol as ‘an activating, rather than a stress, hormone, one that keeps us alive and alert.’ Learning and forming memories are examples of processes that can only occur when cortisol levels are high enough (but not too high).

You need to be alert for learning and memory to take place

But what about when there is not a tiger in sight and yet you feel on edge? Or when there’s a small potential threat but you find yourself in full on fight, flight or freeze mode?

One of the endearing / irritating tendencies of the brain is interpreting, justifying and explaining everything, organising things into categories – whether it is coming from outside or inside the body. Unsettled sort of feelings in your body can quickly send you spiralling as your brain actively seeks out and highlights any possible threats by way of explaining the feeling. This sort of ‘threat scanning’ can become a well-worn pathway in the brain that becomes easier to slip into, like a habit. Your attention can be skewed towards noticing potential threats in amongst a mixed bag of input.

The way your brain labels your experience can also have an impact. Adrenaline increases in response to exciting things not just threatening things. A performance may be one of those things that is exciting and nerve-wracking, both resulting in adrenaline and a similar feeling in the body, but some brains may tend towards labelling that sensation as anxiety rather than excitement, and research shows that how you label something affects how you feel. So if you have a tendency to notice the threats AND a tendency to label body feelings as a negative emotion, this could lead to more negative emotions.

If you are scanning for clouds you will notice them more than suns

Just doing my job ma’am

It's not the brain’s fault, it’s just doing it’s job, perhaps a little over-enthusiastically. So skip out the judgement and the blame, which can set off a whole new spiral, and try just observing what happened: ‘Ok I notice that my brain has triggered a response there – I notice that fluttery feeling of the adrenaline. And now my brain is justifying that and scanning for an explanation.’

All very normal and boring around here

Camila Cabello has managed to improve her relationship with her feelings, including anxiety, through meditation and mindfulness. One part of this has been acknowledging that these feelings are what she calls a ‘normal, predictable part of being human’. So instead of trying to solve them, she tries to say something like “Ok, I’m feeling anxiety because this is important to me” or “I notice that I’m feeling daunted because I’m about to go into a room of people I don’t know.’ How normal and unsurprising. Having acknowledged that you are being a human and having human feelings you don’t need to do anything about it – emotions are designed to be temporary, just like rain doesn’t last forever and whatever you choose to do while it’s raining, you can’t make it stop falling.

“When its raining you don’t think of a way to alleviate the rain, you grab a book and snuggle in a nook or get an umbrella and go for a stroll”.

Camila Cabello

Play along

Part of the body’s response to the threat will be to increase the heart rate, pumping more oxygen to the muscles so they are ready to leap into that fight or flight action. So play along, take some deep, slow breaths and increase oxygen availability. Assuming you’re in one of those situations where your mind has over-reacted, you’re not actually going to use that extra oxygen because you’re not going to be fighting or fleeing (but if you're about to complete in an athletics event that oxygen will be very useful). Once your brain notices you have spare oxygen it will probably twiddle with your settings and dial the response down (this is the job of the hypothalamus). As your system starts to relax, don’t be surprised if you find yourself doing another scan for threats – it would be irresponsible to power down without making sure, right? Try just noticing that – ‘my brain is checking for any threats before it dials down’.

Create new habits

If your brain is already in the habit of the threat scanning or negative scanning – which, most brains are to a certain extent as humans have a natural tendency towards the negative – try tilting the balance by practicing regular positive scanning. Shawn Achor, founder of The Institute for Applied Positive Research says it doesn’t matter what you come up with, just find three different positive things each day and note what it is you appreciate about them every day. Finding different things every day is important because it is the scanning process itself that leads to the brain changing habits.

A dark cloud means rain. On this day my son had a broken arm in a cast to keep dry so he was very alert to the clouds and rain was a bad thing. To my daughter, rain clouds meant a possibility of dancing in the rain

A new perspective

A lot of the time it’s the emotions about the emotions that can lead into a downward spiral. So understanding what is happening and feeling more neutral about what you notice, might help you to create an easier relationship with anxiety. It also gives you some distance and breathing space. There is also substantial research about the impact of expectations on our reality, including research that shows that when people were told that anxiety improved performance, their performance was higher compared to people who were not told that. And many people do find that anxiety improves performance, so it’s not unreasonable for you to expect your anxiety to be useful. Expect it, and it just might become true for you.

Hopefully you’ve found this post interesting and helpful for the non-judgemental part of ‘non-judgementally observing your emotions’. It is not intended to replace professional individual therapy or support. If you need professional help managing anxiety, please seek it.