Have you ever had one of those moments where you wish you could teleport yourself anywhere but where you were right then? This week, I depart from the studio to share a story about working with my anxiety. The battle with this beast is one that is life-long and has taken years to build up a toolbox from which to manage my anxious episodes. I hope those of you who also struggle with unwanted thoughts and amplified feelings will be served through this post. And for those who do not suffer from anxiety, read on – there’s a lesson here for you too!
Last week, we were on our first, full-week vacation since my son Jaxon was born. We had traveled to Hilton Head Island to spend the week with my parents for spring break. I know that family dynamics always take a few days to work themselves out – especially with an active-almost-five-year-old in tow – and I had even said to my husband, “Give it three days and we’ll all be chilled out.” But this particular moment happened on day two with my son in the midst of a tired/hungry/adjustment meltdown, followed by a slew of miscommunications about plans and then my own nervousness about an upcoming interview with a non-Pilates podcast. All at once, I was plunged into the annals of my lizard brain at hyper speed. Full on, default-mode was uploaded and the oldest, anxious reactivity was triggered HARD. My brain was quick to craft a dangerous story of “I’m all alone and no one cares about me.” Though I wasn’t able to get ahead of this thought spiral, I had my wits about me enough to recognize that shift was necessary for my mental health.
If you’ve followed any of my work, you know that my go-to place to make “shift happen” is the bathroom (and yes, I spelled that correctly.) In that sacred space, the doors lock, a shower can be turned on and the expectation is that I’ll be in there for five minutes at least. When I escape to this sanctuary, I typically engage in an emergency breathing practice like this one. But today, I knew that the bathroom wasn’t going to cut it. I was beyond fight mode. My thoughts had fully taken off and the higher their negativity flew, the lower I felt. I needed to leave the environment, so I told my husband that I was taking a walk and would be back in an hour. To his complete credit, he asked no questions.
I know from experience that the worst thing I can do in this state is to try to fight it off. Affirmations fall on deaf ears. Reframing becomes “re-frustrating.” During a major emotional meltdown, my first act of self-compassion is to match the internal energy with external output. My thoughts were like race cars on the Daytona 500, whizzing by so fast that I could hardly keep up. I quickly upped the pace of my steps in an effort to say “OK, I’m going to join you here and we’ll go around this track together as a team.”
Once I felt like I had physically matched the energy of my mind, I could better listen the thoughts and man, were they nasty! I knew that the next necessary step would be the hardest. I needed to sit back and let them flow. I reminded myself that these thoughts were not coming from my highest self; they were a result of my ego mind’s need to keep me protected. I took a deep breath and let them flow. “I’m not supported” was the sentiment that played over and over, coupled with a side order of “No one understands me.” These are two of the greatest hits on my anxiety playlist and a number of years back would have knocked me out for days. On this day, however, I had done enough work to understand that these statements do not remotely reflect the truth of my life. Again, fighting them would be futile. Instead I responded with “Ok, you feel unsupported and misunderstood. What would be helpful for these feelings right now? What do you need, Jenna?” I needed space. I needed to know that I had a tool to help myself. The most accessible tool I own is my breath. I slowed my pace and was able to introduce the mantra “I support myself through the deepening of my breath.”
As I breathed, the dial on my anxiety ticked down a few notches and the loop that had been playing loudly in my mind became softer. I continued to breathe, walk and note the things that I saw. Dog. Tree. Flower. Alligator. Bird. Hawk chasing a tiny bird. HAWK! This was a sign that I was on the right path. Hawks have long-served as a signal for me to take perspective, widen the lens and look for the truth of what’s happening. Noting the aspects that were present around me in those moments allowed me to interrupt the storytelling I was engaged in and begin to see things differently. I was helping myself. I was shifting. I felt supported.
I came to a bench by a lagoon and sat down to watch the hawk for a bit as it gave up on the frenetic bird chase and made it’s way across the sky. Suddenly, like a plane being re-routed, it banked left and circled back towards the center of the lagoon. “Wow! He’s really giving me a show!” I thought. Gratitude ticked the notch on the dial lower as I watched in wonder. Suddenly, the hawk stopped to hover over the water, his wings spread in exactly the right angle for the sun to spray across them, illuminating them in feathery flames of red and orange. Time stopped for a moment and then in a flash, he dropped quickly towards the water, tucking his wings in for speed. Just as he was about to meet the surface, he pulled up, flapped his wings and took to the sky once again. “Curious.” I thought. Curiosity ticked the notch down again. Pulled into the anticipation of the hawk’s next move, I was hardly aware of the anxious thoughts that just moments ago were ruling my very existence.
I watched him circle again, two times and then three. He paused in a hover and I held my breath. Once again, he dropped, tucked in wings and skimmed the surface of the water before pulling up again. I exhaled with exhilaration. A hunting dance! He was tactical. He was making choices. He was waiting for the right moment and he wasn’t afraid to try again. “This is big. There is a lesson here.” I thought.
He soared once more around the lagoon, this time with a calm authority. Time stopped. He hovered. He fell and tucked in his wings at just the right moment, plunging into the water. “YES!” I exclaimed out loud, jumping from the bench with my hands extended to the sky as if I had just won the lottery! Passers-by looked at me strangely. The children on the playground behind me stopped their play. I was too in the moment to care about the commotion I had caused. The hawk emerged with a large fish in his talons and I choked back the tears at the beauty of this display. “The hawk,” I said to an older gentleman who was standing close by, sheltering his grandson from the crazy bird lady, “He’s giving us a show!” “Do you study hawks?” said the grandfather. “Um, you could say that,” I replied.
While I was fully enraptured with the hawk’s display, my husband and son had walked over to the park and were at the playground behind me. They are used to “giving Mommy some space” when I need a moment to regroup and had been waiting for a good moment to join me on the bench. Responding to the commotion I had made, they revealed themselves and I recounted what I had just witnessed. We watched together as the hawk returned for another round of Survival Of The Fittest and marveled at his grace, tactics, and skill. My anxious thoughts were mute. Now, there was only appreciation, connection, and presence. We walked back to the house together, having shifted for the better.
Sometimes I wish I could sit in my role of leader and motivator and say I had it all figured out, but that would be a lie. Anxiety is a challenging headliner for me, but I’ve committed to working to better understand my triggers and the detrimental stories that follow in order to build strategies to support myself through the situations that may occur. Because of these tools, I find that I suffer less anxious episodes in general, however, that doesn’t mean that they won’t happen. And if that shadow does rear its ugly head, I know that I have the tools to work through it.
I’m not a medical professional, but I do live with anxiety every day. It’s important to note that I’ve worked with a number of therapists and coaches in my life who have been integral to me developing support systems for myself. If you feel overwhelmed or hopeless about your thoughts or feelings, please seek out the help of a mental health professional and know that you are not alone. Below, I’ve listed the steps I use to work through an anxious episode. Thank you for holding the space to read this post. xo
Change Your Environment
Do the very best you can to leave the space that is triggering the anxiety. Remember, a trip to the bathroom can create the space you need to take perspective, breathe and shift.
Meet The Energy
Attempt to match the internal energy physically. If you can’t take a walk, sometimes you can shake your hands or stomp your feet. You don’t have to do cardio in these instances, it’s simply an act to acknowledge that you see the anxiety and you are ready to meet it. This strategy can be especially useful if you’re a person who hates to be told “Calm Down.”
Interview your feelings
Really listen to what your mind is saying as an observer of the scenario. Note which statements, sentiments or feelings are the “loudest” in your mind and check in to see if these things are actually true. Ask yourself about what would be helpful. What can you do to help yourself at that moment?
What do you see right now? No matter how arbitrary, noting the objects and elements in your environment can truly be a means of finding a present mindset. At the very least, it can help to distract you from the “loudness” of your thoughts.
This one is challenging in the throes of an anxiety attack, however, if you begin with the tiniest element you can gain some traction to move on to larger sentiments. Start with an item of clothing, the chair that you’re sitting in or a piece of jewelry. Choose anything that might help you see your current situation differently.
What would it feel like to release the feelings and thoughts that are overwhelming you? What else can you do to support yourself at this moment?