“Get a sofa bed.” This unassuming project has been patiently biding its time in the murky depths of my Non-Urgent-Things-To-Do list. After having the girls there’s no extra room in our apartment to welcome the occasional guest. In a classic two-birds-one-stone manoeuvre, I thought I would do a little online browsing for sofa beds (Yay! The satisfaction of progress!) while also procrastinating writing this blog post (Yay! The sweet sweet relief of avoidance!). Excellent. But then, in a paradoxical victory of sorts, looking at sofa bed videos brought me right back to writing this post. More thrilling sofa bed updates in a moment. First, a little primer about fear vs. anxiety.
Fear is the emotional state that arises in response to an immediate perceived threat. It’s basically nature’s alarm to help you survive when your safety is threatened. Your body and brain change gears to give you the means to fight, flee, freeze, or take cover. To help you take protective action, your mind becomes more able to detect and focus on sources of danger (Barlow, 2002). Anxiety is the emotional state that arises in response to an anticipated threat. You may feel apprehension, worry, and muscle tension. The experience of anxiety may be less intense compared to a state of acute fear, but it might be much longer lasting. This depends, in part, on what stories your mind is telling you (Forsyth and Eifert, 2007). While fear is oriented towards the present moment (“The house is on FIRE!”), anxiety is focused on an imagined future [i] (“What if I make a mistake and the house catches on fire?!”). Used adaptively, anxiety can help motivate us to plan appropriately for the future and take action. However, the creative human mind can also come up with brilliantly compelling stories about potential threats that are so distant or so beyond our realm of control that there’s nothing we can really do to take action right now. Like a deer in headlights, we can fixate on those disturbing stories and forget about any adaptive problem-solving. We can even get stuck in a maladaptive cycle of anxiety that feeds into itself without resolution.
Clinical psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach describes stuck anxiety as a cycle of mind-body looping (Brach, 2013). Let’s say the mind focuses on the perception that something might go wrong (e.g., “What if I write this blog post and it’s stupid and irrelevant?”). If we get tangled up and carried away by that threatening thought, it generates physical sensations in the body as well (e.g., a slight tension and quivering in my stomach; my heart beat quickens a bit and my breathing is slightly more shallow). In turn, the mind picks up these physical signals. The body’s felt-sense of fear tricks the mind into confirming that the potential threats are true stories (“Of course there’s some real danger here! Why else would I feel like this?”). With the mind on high alert for threats, we detect and focus even more on anxious thoughts…and the cycle continues. If the looping becomes habitual we might feel chronically anxious. Fixated on an imagined future we start missing out on anything enjoyable, useful, or interesting that’s available to us right here, right now in the present moment. So how do we break the cycle?
There’s a kind of futon-type sofa bed I was checking out. If you want to open it up into a bed, you have to do something a little counter-intuitive. Just pulling outwards to try to pry it open won’t work. It just locks in place. You actually have to push the backrest inward, towards the seat first. This activates some kind of release mechanism and voila! The sofa opens up and you’ve just created some bonus space to rest. Understandably, we want to avoid what we perceive as the aversive, unpleasant experience of anxiety. We want to NOT feel what we are feeling and we instinctively pull away from it. But this experiential avoidance doesn’t actually get us away from the anxiety. If anything, it seems to lock the anxiety into place! So what if we try turning inward, towards the anxiety instead?
You can see for yourself what it’s like to turn towards your anxiety, lean in, and stay present using Dr. Tara Brach’s (2013) 4-step RAIN practice:
Close your eyes and bring to mind something that arouses anxiety. To build confidence as you begin to practice these steps, start by choosing something that is only mildly or moderately anxiety provoking. Become mindful of your anxious or worried thoughts and notice the different forms they take: planning, rehearsing, trying to figure something out, a voice or some sort of mental commentary or judgment, or some visual images. Once you’ve identified your worry thoughts, whisper “fear thinking.”
Instead of avoiding or struggling against your inner experience, experiment with just letting it be. You might even experiment with saying “yes” or “I consent” as if you are giving yourself permission to fully experience and mindfully explore whatever is there.
Drop into your body, bringing your awareness below the neck with curiosity, openness, and kindness. Where does the worry and anxiety show up in your body right now? Bring your awareness to wherever you feel the anxiety most strongly in your body and notice the physical sensations: any pressure, tightness, ache, heat, movement, or other sensations? It takes a lot of courage and willingness to stay present with unpleasant sensations. You can support yourself through this exploration with slow, gentle breaths.
What does the anxious part of yourself most need to hear to feel comforted at this time? You can explore the ways you might deliver a message of kindness and care to the vulnerable part of you. Using a gentle tone of voice, you might offer some words like “it’s ok, I’m with you” or “that’s then and this is now”. You can also offer a caring physical gesture of some sort, like softly placing your hand on your heart. After completing the four RAIN steps, use your senses to ground yourself in the here and now. Feel your feet on the floor or feel any other points of contact where your body is physically supported in this moment. See the light, shapes, and colours around you. Hear the sounds and let them flow through you. Take some time to notice what has changed in your body and your mind. Each time you practice these steps, you’ll be further de-conditioning the tendency to get stuck in a useless anxiety cycle. Unlike the “false refuge” of distraction or rumination, we can lean in and open up a “true refuge” (Brach, 2013)—an inner space that’s always available to us… even in the midst of suffering and discomfort. Even when special guests like anxiety show up. Although this is an important conceptual difference, there may be a great deal of overlap in the body’s physical response: the basic fear-based brain and behavioural mechanisms that evolved to protect us from imminent danger may be re-used to some extent for the fancier task of protecting us from distant or virtual threats (Steimer, 2002).
Barlow, D. H. (2002). Anxiety and its disorders: The nature and treatment of anxiety and panic (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Forsyth, J. P. & Eifert, G. H. (2007). The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A guide to breaking free from anxiety, phobias, and worry using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Brach, T. (2013). True refuge: Finding peace and freedom in your own awakened heart. New York: Bantam Books.
T. Steimer (2002). The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 4(3), 231-249.