Updated: Sep 12, 2020
When I was four years old my grandmother Alice gave me a broach that no longer fastened, it looked like an owl that could have been lifted from the pages of a Dr. Seuss storybook. With the broach came the news that I was a "worrywart". I had no idea what a worrywart was, only that it sounded like something I wanted nothing to do with. My fear was confirmed as Alice instructed me to rub the owls belly whenever I began to dwell on troubles and concerns, which she felt I did far too often. I share this memory to illustrate how early anxieties grip can take hold.
A tendency toward anxiety can be the result of our genetic inheritance, or can grow from the attachment relationship formed with our parents or primary caregiver in infancy and the toddler years. It can surface at any time as a symptom of unresolved trauma, and of unmanaged stress. Anxiety can mask suppressed emotions that may not have been allowed expression such as anger, and often shows up as perfectionism.
With anxiety often comes fear; we look externally for someone or something that may be threatening us. Scanning our environment for safety when needed is an important function of anxiety, yet there is often no physical threat present. When we live with a sense of immanent danger we often react by going into fight, flight or freeze response. The resulting behavior, ranging from anger, aggression and defensiveness to withdrawal and depression can become a dominant part of our physiology and character, negatively impacting our relationships and wellbeing.
Caught up in worry or fear we forget to look internally, often anxiety is simply letting us know that we need to check in with ourselves. Asking yourself the following questions can be helpful:
Where am I placing my attention?
Neuroscience has shown that the brain changes in response to our focus of attention. There is an often-quoted neuroscientific phrase "neurons that fire together, wire together" which speaks to how experience changes neural structure. Simply put, whatever you repeat, good, bad or indifferent, is strengthened.
This knowledge has contributed to the popularity of mindfulness practices that cultivate awareness of present moment experience with intention and without judgment. Research on mindfulness indicates a greater ability to regulate emotion and attention, improved empathy and insight, promotion of healthy immune functioning, and increased growth of regulatory and integrative regions of the brain. Just 12 minutes a day of mindful awareness or a meditation practice that includes self-compassion is enough to bring about these changes.
Am I avoiding or refusing to acknowledge uncomfortable emotions?
When we find ourselves swept up by an uncomfortable feeling, we may dwell in and identify with the emotional state, yet all emotions are temporary and never the totality of our identity. It's important we not judge or ignore our challenging emotions; this only serves to strengthen them. Instead we want to acknowledge and meet our emotions with acceptance and self-compassion. If you feel overwhelmed when processing emotions on your own, a psychotherapist can support you in safely looking at and developing an understanding of what might be underlying the discomfort.
Am I making time for self-care?
Lack of self-care and stress can cause or contribute to anxiety. Are you eating healthfully, getting enough sleep, finding time weekly to exercise, play, and relax? If you suffer from frequent overwhelm, or anxiety, it's important to be seen by a doctor to rule out any medical cause.
Where might I be feeling out of balance or un-centered?
One of the most important ways to help alleviate worry and anxiety is to find balance. Not only balancing various aspects of your life, balancing your physiology. Nervousness and anxiety imply that you are not grounded in your own being. A few minutes of a daily grounding practice will help to center and bring balance to your body mind.
A simple centering practice to reduce anxiety, adapted from Donna Eden's Little Book of Energy Medicine:
Breath deeply and slowly in through your nose, out through your mouth.
Place one hand with your middle finger on your third eye (between your eyebrows), and place your other hand with your middle finger on your navel.
Push both fingers in, pull up and hold for 5 to 6 breaths.
This centering practice supports the nervous system, connecting the central and governing meridians (pathways in the body along which vital energy flows), bringing their energies between the front and back of your body and between your head and torso.
All of these practices are antidotes to dwelling on anxious or worrisome thoughts. Be patient and kind with yourself, remembering that what you repeat strengthens. The effects of these practices are cumulative; it takes time to master any new skill.
I lost the owl long ago but I'm happy to report, although I feel anxious from time to time, I'm no longer a worrywart.