This fortnight, Kitty Wheater, Mindfulness Chaplin, reflects on how we can learn to protect our own mental health by recognising and dealing with the creatures that live within us…
Depression, we are told, is like a black dog. It’s faithful, heel-bound to its sufferers at every step. It lies down with us at night, its mournful head heavy on black paws, and greets us in the morning by chewing any glimmer of hope, swallowing our future with a great gulp down its vast void of a throat. The black dog is a dark figure of folklore and custom, as well as of mind: black dogs are the least likely to be adopted from rescue shelters, and everyone from Sherlock Holmes to Professor Trelawney fears the Grimm.
With such a strong cultural vocabulary for depression, we are lacking something similar for anxiety. Indeed, it’s so fizzy, fractious, and fearful in quality that it can be hard to capture. We might speak of monkey-mind, or restlessness; agitation, and tightness; fragility, and relentlessness.
I’ve come to think of anxiety as a demented octopus, a many-tentacled sea creature that resides beneath the lower ribcage, the soft place between bone and belly. This is not the soulful companion of My Octopus Teacher, laying a gentle tentacle upon an outstretched finger. It’s a wriggling thing that grips the inner organs at strategic moments, electrifying thoughts with a sizzle when it’s time to think, choking the throat when it’s time to speak, squeezing the stomach when we might eat. For some of us, it is an occasional visitor; for others, it accompanies us for years, until its voice seems to speak with our own.
When students and staff come to me with anxiety, it often feels like a problem that must be fixed or solved. The social life of anxiety in our culture is often one of punishment, discipline, or medicalisation: it becomes something to hide, and extinguish. Anxiety can come to feel shameful, and profoundly isolating.
But when we investigate the linguistic, cultural, and historical origins of the word ‘anxiety’ itself, we find it everywhere. It’s in the Latin anxius – ‘distressed, troubled’ – and the classical Greek ankho, ‘to choke’. It’s in the Old Armenian word anjuk, meaning ‘narrow, tight’, and it’s closely related to the root of ‘anger’. When we pore over its family tree, we discover that through the centuries, the word has contained a world of human feeling. Far from being something that we must endure alone, anxiety, it turns out, is a great universal.
As its etymology suggests, one of the reasons anxiety escalates is because of the very tightening and narrowing effect it has on mind and body. Just as in body the demented octopus seems to squeeze our innards into a tight ball, so we can start to notice how the mental experience of anxiety is of the attention contracting, narrowing, and fixating. Here’s how it typically plays out.
1. Attention capture
Ordinarily we can understand awareness as a broad perceptual field, containing all kinds of mental and sensory phenomena: thoughts, feelings, sounds, sight, sense of breathing, and so on.
The first step in an anxiety cycle is the capturing of attention: something within the perceptual field grabs us. It could be something external – an email arriving in the inbox; the sound of someone saying your name – or something internal: a flash of memory, or an item on the to-do list.
When this happens, the attention narrows. It zooms in upon this phenomenon that has grabbed us, and the broader perceptual field disappears.
2. The attention has a ‘flavour’
Whenever our attention is pulled to something, there is a hidden element of the experience that makes it compelling: the ‘flavour’ or ‘feeling tone’ of it – whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. In Buddhist psychology, this is called ‘vedana’.
The flavour of the experience plays a large part in what happens next. If it is pleasant, or neutral, chances are that the ‘attention capture’ releases, and moves on.
When the flavour of the attention capture is unpleasant in some way, something else happens. The nervous system’s fight, flight or freeze functions begin to come on board, and the mind starts to recruit resources to help tackle the threat.
3. The mental cavalry
For people with a lot of experience of anxiety, the neural pathways that light up next do so with admirable efficiency. Your mind rapidly starts to throw everything it can remember, imagine, or hypothesise at the potential threat, with a strong relevance filter.
This is why anxiety feels so ‘true’: the mind is extracting everything remotely related to the current experience, at breakneck speed. In this moment you are not simply experiencing a difficult email on a Thursday afternoon – you are experiencing every difficult email you have ever received.
When the attention narrows and fixates in anxiety, it is impossible, in this moment, to imagine that anything exists outside of this experience. The difficult email is no longer just an email, but also a course failure, or a lost job; it is emblematic of your life, rather than simply a moment within it.
Because of this, people experiencing severe anxiety may report a feeling of doom, panic, or both. Adrenaline and cortisol soar, muscles tense, and the body temperature changes. Other emotions, like anger and fear, come online. Here is the world of human feeling, from all the way down the centuries, come to call.
Whether it’s five minutes, hours, or days later, the stress hormones move through, the emotional wind in the mind’s sails quieten, and you are left feeling, well, tuckered out. If it was simply a stressful day, you may just need a quiet evening and a good night’s sleep; if it was a panic attack, it may take you a few days to feel like yourself again. For many of us, the experience of anxiety becomes chronic, because the cognitive links between these stages become slicker and slicker with each occurrence.
Horrible though the experience of all the above is, here is the good news: anxiety makes sense. It’s a sticky mental phenomenon, but a well-understood one. This means that perceptually, there are some simple ways of interrupting the cycle as it’s happening. Here are some ideas.
1. Take a three-step breathing space
Anxiety thrives on the invisibility of its components: it feels like a big, tentacle-sucker-punching blob. A three-step breathing space recognises and names the discrete components of the experience – thoughts, feelings, body sensations – and offers a place of stability and presence for the attention. On difficult days, a breathing space once an hour can be the most compassionate gift to yourself. Try this: Three minute breathing space.
2. Broaden your vision
When you are in the midst of anxiety, you will notice that not only has your attention narrowed, but also your gaze has become fixed and glassy. Winningly, you can therefore use visual perception as an active feedback loop to interrupt an anxiety cycle.
If you’re at your screen, take a few moments to broaden your awareness to peripheral vision. You can do this by putting your arms out to the sides and wriggling the fingers, such that you can still just about see both hands in your perceptual field. Notice the space in the room around you, above your head, and around your body. Something as simple as standing up, and looking out of the window for a few minutes, can help re-introduce this sense of space.
If you can get outside, deliberately move your gaze around the horizon, both near and far, and notice what you can see. Notice trees, the roofs of houses, birds flying in the sky. When your gaze gets ‘stuck’ – to the ground beneath your feet, for example – purposefully raise it, and look around again.
3. Move it move it
Anxiety is a mind-body experience, as anyone who stores stress in their bodies knows, and so the body is an ally in helping stress hormones to move through and settle. For chronic anxiety, a regular gentle movement practice like tai chi, or mindful walking, can help weaken the links in the cycle by training the attention to rest in the body in the present moment. For the ‘tired-but-wired’ kind of anxiety, a run, set of squats, or energetic leap around the room to Taylor Swift is recommended.
Last of all, when you are at exhaustion point, with a skin as thin as a kelp cape around a demented octopus, you will need soothing things to help calm the residual zaps of anxiety. Self-massage for several minutes with your favourite music; lie down on the floor and feel the ground beneath you; try a grounding and releasing practice. All will be well: Grounding and releasing practice
As a period of anxiety subsides, you may notice that it gives way to clarity. Sometimes, what emerges is something more like sadness. Tend this kindly, too, if and when it comes up. This too is a part of the world of human feeling. Let it move through.
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Photography: Sam Sills.