Talking Back to Anxiety

Anyone who suffers from anxiety knows what it feels like to be told, “you should just…” followed by some oversimplified answer. Or the sentence ends in some technique you’ve already tried (and tried). My favorite advice regarding my driving issue is, “Just get on the highway.” This pearl comes straight from my psychiatrist. Thanks! Now why had I never thought of that?

But talking back to people who just don’t seem to get it doesn’t help. That just gets me more wound up. Anyway, it’s the anxiety that needs some back-talk.

Of course, lowering my baseline anxiety would be a good first step, if I knew how to do it. The medicines are supposed to be doing that, but in truth, just aren’t. Neither is therapy. And daily meditation? Not yet.

Two solutions come to mind. One my therapist will love because it comes right out to the cognitive behaviorist’s playbook: listen to what I’m telling myself all day, which are the anxiety thoughts, and how might I reframe them. The theory is that by changing your thoughts, you change your emotional state.

On another front, there is the body’s physiological state and responses to life. I’m reading Stanley Rosenberg’s “Accessing the Healing Power of the Vagus Nerve: Self Help Exercises for Anxiety, Depression, Trauma, and Autism.” That might sound like quite an overreach, but if you consider how much of the autonomic nervous system is affected by the vagus nerve, it begins to make more sense. In another post I’ll write about Stephen Porges’s polyvagal theory, on which¬†this entire book is based, but here I will suffice it to say that listening to Porges lecture (during my cranial-sacral therapy class) made me wonder how one could use the theory to calm down my hair-trigger nervous system. Rosenberg’s book claims the possibility of doing just that through some simple exercises related to the vagus nerve designed to quiet anxiety and panic.

So this is my new two pronged approach:

  1. Top-down (brain to body) processing approach: I am using my brain to notice my thoughts and reframe the ones that are anxiety provoking. Thus, literally talking back to my anxiety.
  2. Bottom-up (body to brain) processing approach. I am practicing two of Rosenberg’s easy exercises designed to harness the healing power of the vagus nerve, a nerve that has the capacity to both mobilize the fight-flight response as well as calm to the rest-digest state. I would call this a physiological way of “talking back” to anxiety.

Very preliminary results:

  1. On the top-down front: It takes a lot of effort and attention to notice one’s thoughts for any length of time. I am using small spikes of anxiety I feel in my body to alert me to the fact that I might be having some anxiety driven thought. To be honest, I’m struggling, but am making a little headway. I noticed how much I was afraid of not getting my responsibilities done for the day and wanted to start my (obsessive) planning habit. I told myself, first swim, then do a brief planning period. This actually worked. Other vaguely anxious thoughts I’m having a hard time catching. I suppose this is a practice, and takes practice.
  2. On the bottom up front. The “basic exercise” did free my neck muscles a bit, as promised. As for the effect on my anxiety, I’m not sure yet. I think I may have notice some more calm?¬†Need more data.