Sitting here preparing to write about anxiety management for the third week, and staring a a glaring white page, I can feel my stomach tightening. My breathing is getting shorter and my shoulders creep up around my ears. I become more mindful and notice negative thoughts (i.e. "this is too hard, what if nobody cares?, maybe I shouldn't bother....) passing through my mind. Suddenly I catch myself going down a spiral of fear and the desire to feel different. I remember my tip from last week (just say "yes" to anxiety) and now notice the sensations, thoughts and emotions for what they are. Yes, my body is feeling uncomfortable, yes I am having negative thoughts and yes, I absolutely do not want to feel this way. With this new-found acceptance my breathing slows down, and I notice a shift in my thought patterns. My shoulders are still tight, but I can tolerate the discomfort and focus again.
Once I have gotten out of the anxiety whirlpool I have a few choices as to how to direct my attention. For this week, I would like to focus on one particular strategy:
Tip #3: Cultivate self-compassion
Now before you totally tune out, assuming self-compassion is overly corny or trite, please bear with me just a little. It might be helpful to consider that the opposite of self-compassion is self-hatred or animosity towards your own suffering. While we might not like our anxieties, considering what we learned last week, we now know that resisting them only makes them more daunting and entrenched. By contrast, bringing an attitude of kindness to our suffering (also know as self-compassion) has the impact of disarming the part of us which resists feeling uncomfortable.
There are many ways to cultivate self-compassion. Those of us who experience anxiety are ironically "lucky" in that it is actually easier to work on self-compassion when we are struggling (if we're already happy as a clam there's not a whole lot of emotional impact when we soften). An initial exercise might be to make a note of the language you use with yourself when you are feeling anxious (i.e. "I'm just not cut out to deal with this...........situation", or "I'm not ............... enough to belong in ............... group/category of people). You might write about the impact your language has on your subsequent feelings, mood, emotions and behaviour. Once you have explored your default language and it's impact, it can be helpful to record a list of alternative things you could say to yourself the next time you going through hardship (i.e. "oh man, this sucks but I really am doing the best I can", or "I'm feeling inadequate and shoddy in general, but it's normal to worry about being accepted by others"). You might notice the difference in the way your body feels which you use this kinder, more validating language. It's also helpful to notice what you feel compelled to do when you carry a more compassionate attitude (you will likely feel more motivated, rather than less so).
There are a number of other practices and techniques aimed at fostering a mindful and compassionate awareness of our difficulties. It can be particularly helpful to focus on self-compassion in a group setting because there is great relief in knowing these types of struggles are so prevalent. In Toronto, you can check out a number of Mindfulness courses through the Centre for Mindfulness Studies, or you can look for a mindfulness trainer internationally through the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion.
As always, if you or a loved one suspects you are experiencing anxiety that needs professional attention, it's best to check it out with your physician or a mental health care provider as soon as possible.