No matter what may trigger it—an upcoming performance evaluation at work, a text message canceling a date, a highly disturbing news report—when anxiety sets in, we’re often hard-pressed to keep our thoughts under control.
A simple doubt or worry suddenly morphs into a cascade of dismal thoughts. The negative emotions that follow on their heel suck us into a vortex of “what ifs”, “should haves”, and “nevers”. And before we know it, our mind is whirling with so many negatives that the catastrophic scenario we imagine seems like the only reasonable reality.
Of course, that’s completely untrue. Intellectually, we may even know that. But our thinking about the situation—and ourselves—has become so skewed by our emotions that we simply can’t think straight.
What can you do at that point to regain balance?
When Thoughts Are Spinning Out of Control – Sit With It
Certainly, most of us have been on a merry-go-round or used a swing before. We know that once we stop fueling the circular or back and forth motion, they will slow down and eventually even come to a halt.
This may seem like a pretty simplistic illustration, but it has merit. When we do absolutely nothing, the twirling or fluctuating movement ebbs. The equivalent to doing “nothing” when our mind is whirling with anxious thoughts is to “sit with it”—doing nothing to fuel the negative dynamics.
Yes, it may seem counterintuitive. But to regain balance, stop pushing for a change and just observe, feel, and visualize your anxiety.
As our mind is swirling with one anxious thought after another, it’s creating a story. That story usually involves our environment and us—told from a first-person perspective. Yet, it’s fictional.
In order to regain balance, you have to learn to observe the story being told from a third-person perspective. In essence, you remove yourself from being in the middle of the story and create space to simply be an observer, not a participant. From that point of view, you can begin seeing your thought process without identifying with it.
The energy of your thoughts is still within your field of awareness, but you’ve mentally stepped off the merry-go-round, so to speak. Its imagined power is removed. As you watch, it gradually becomes slower and slower all by itself.
Sometimes anxiety starts with a thought and then quickly spreads to our body, causing heart palpitations, rapid breathing, stomach cramps, or muscle twitches. Other times, anxiety begins with those bodily sensations and then overtakes our thoughts as we are looking for reasons for those feelings. Whichever way it goes, it’s clear that anxious thoughts and physical anxiety responses are linked.
To regain balance, you must allow yourself to feel your anxiety—mentally and physically—with as much compassion as you can muster, for those emotions are usually not very comfortable. Staying put with your feelings, though, is key, even if they scarily swinging up and down. Breathing deeply, from the diaphragm, as you allow the feelings to flow naturally, will make the discomfort more manageable. Eventually, your tolerance to these emotions grows, until your sense of well-being re-balances.
Visualizing the color, shape, texture, and substance of our anxiety can help us explore it with compassionate awareness. By allowing ourselves to be curious and open about our anxiety, we can increase our understanding of our anxious emotions, thoughts, and body sensations. Moreover, with visualization, we can affect changes in our perception.
In order to regain balance, try to imagine what your anxiety looks like. Is it a huge, fiery-red, and pulsating blob? Is it a spiky, black wrecking ball? Or is it more like glowing, white-hot coals? Close your eyes and give it a shape. Touch it. Hold it in your hands. Weight it. Feel its texture, its temperature. Discern its substance. Then imagine you’re blasting it with freezing air until it shrinks into a tiny pebble or gets shattered or pulverized. Or visualize it getting filled with gas until it becomes as light a balloon and floats off.
Once you find a technique—or two—that helps you regain balance, it often gives you a powerful sense of control. Rather than fighting or surrendering to the anxious thoughts that cause your mind to whirl, you now understand how to simply sit with it. All the while, patiently waiting until the emotionally/mental merry-go-round slows.
Of course, depending on how pervasive your negative thoughts and how intense your anxious feelings are, sitting with your anxiety may be very difficult without appropriate support. For that reason, you may find it beneficial to seek out the help of a skilled therapist. They can teach you to deal with any difficulties you may encounter while trying to regain balance when anxiety takes you on a dizzying ride.