Recently I was at a rock concert seeing one of my all-time favorite live acts (311, for anyone who cares). Unfortunately, I was plagued by unhelpful recurring thoughts about an interaction I had earlier with a student. There was nothing more for me to do - the situation was settled - yet I kept playing events in my head on repeat, over and over again. It was putting me in a melancholy funk when I wanted to feel anxiety free and able to fully enjoy the show.
Fortunately, I wasn’t so triggered that I couldn’t think clearly - and despite knowing that I could not directly think my way out of my emotions this time, I could at least remember the list of common interventions for dealing with unpleasant emotions.
The first - and most often ignored - is always acceptance. I had to stop resisting the fact that...
... I was experiencing a negative emotion. Of course, the experience was obvious to me - but an experience does not have to be subtle for us to be in denial over it. If we feel bad, and our first reaction is to run from the feeling, then we limit our ability to affect how we feel. If we don’t accept the situation for what it is, then we cannot truly know precisely what we’re feeling and therefore cannot react to it in an ideal fashion. So first I said to myself “stop running and sit with this - feel this discomfort long enough to understand it.”
The combination of forcing myself to do something I didn’t really want to do led me to let out a big SIGH, which took me to the second common intervention: breathing. Take a deep breath, sigh loudly, increase your blood oxygen and stimulate the vagus nerve to prod the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system to combat the “fight or flight” response.
Now that I was accepting reality and breathing calmly, I was able to remember the 3rd intervention: getting present! Bring your focus to the present moment in order to cease fearing the future or feeling sad about the past. Focus on the breath if that helps, and if not, try to use all your senses to bring you more fully into what you are currently doing. Look at the floor, look at the sky, look around for someone interesting to people watch. Smell the air, feel the weight of your body in your shoes, try to pick out a single voice in a sea of noise.
Finally, I was now ready to take action on the advice that sounds the least useful but is actually quite powerful when you’re able to employ it: think happy thoughts! No, seriously! Literally force yourself into thinking about things that bring a smile to your face. In my example I looked over at my wife and best friend who were at the show with me. They were smiling and dancing, so I allowed their smiles to encourage my own. I also asked myself to remember past times where we were all together smiling - previous shows we’d gone to, funny moments seeing standup comedy, the fact that we’d all been friends for at least 10 years. There are many more interventions to try, but at this moment these were my top 4.
This didn’t turn off the anxiety like a light switch - instead it was more like shutting off a leaky faucet. What started as a stream so powerful that it preoccupied my thoughts in the middle of a loud concert, turned into a weak trickle after a short bit of focused effort on changing my mood. Once it became a trickle, the feeling of exertion around “controlling” my thoughts also went away. From there the trickle turned into a few occasional droplets - I did say it was a LEAKY faucet didn’t I? It’ll take more than a few simple exercises to fix the leak, but we don’t need to be 100% fixed before we can enjoy our lives in the moment.
At the start of this little self-intervention, it felt awful even attempting to change my mood. It felt hard, like lifting something heavy, and there were voices telling me to not waste my time. Voices saying I was broken for even feeling this way, or too weak to be effective. There was a soundtrack playing in my brain that said if I stopped worrying about the situation that somehow, something WORSE was going to happen.
Of course that feeling would discourage any attempts to change it, but in the past it was even worse because I had made my anxiety a part of my identity and not just a maladaptive habit of thought. I equated my SELF with my bad habit, which made me attached to the habit despite it’s horrible outcomes. I had to realize that I was not just a collection of thoughts and feelings but that which OBSERVED the thoughts and feelings as well - and this distinction empowered me to take better control of my REACTION to my thoughts and feelings like I did in my example above.
If I hadn’t made the attempt, my anxiety would have continued to plague me throughout the entire show and would not have dissipated until I went to sleep that night and restored the mental and biochemical resources needed to prevent unnecessary anxiety like this. I couldn’t stop the anxiety from coming, but this time I was able to dramatically shorten its life span by choosing to react to the anxiety in a skillful way.