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Soothing Anxiety

This is a challenging time for many people. There is much to fear and to grieve, there are many losses both personal and global – of life, of health, of economic well being, of social interactions – the list goes on, but there are also opportunities for self-care.  Especially now, during times of Covid-19 when we are feeling limited by our external choices – of where we can go and who we can see, it’s important to be reminded that possibilities for our own self-care are internally determined and directed.

Both friends and clients are talking about their anxieties. Anxiety is not experienced as pleasant or welcome, but it is an important sensation in the body to recognize. The problem comes when anxiety becomes a constant state rather than a message to the self to act on. Originally anxiety was a sensation designed to provoke a fight or flight response. A response system meant to be temporary. Once the response occurred the sensations and impulse for seeking safety receded. Feeling anxiety at this historic time seems to me to be one of a number of reasonable and expected responses to the virus and its continued effects on our selves and our world. There are tangible threats to our wellbeing, as well as unknowns.  What’s not healthy is when those feelings of anxiety become the predominant emotion or state of being and take over.

In addition to doing all the practical things we can, that we ourselves have control over, there are ways of being and actions one can take that can counteract this, that can help us regain our perspective about the sensations we might feel that we perceive as anxiety, and to both calm and reduce them. Although the usual knee-jerk reaction to feeling anxious is to try to make it disappear through avoidant behavior – such as eating, watching movies and series, being on electronics, or other distractions – unless you are truly hungry, are really loving that show, or have to answer a specific email or text, my very first suggestion is to get closer and more familiar with your anxiety, not to move away from it.

Start by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position in a quiet place where you will be undisturbed for 10-15 minutes. Breathe easily and slowly through your nose, counting to 4 on your inhale, 4 to hold, and 4 to exhale. If this feels too short, feel free to use a 6 count, if too long, try a 2 or 3 count. The breath should be relaxed and not forced, and not rapid. After a few rounds of breathing and you feel comfortable with the rhythm of the breath, scan your body to relax any places you notice may feel tense and send your breath there. Where is the sensation of anxiety in your body? How strong is it?  Has that changed since you began your breathing? Does it have a color? A shape? Are there other sensations in your body right now?  Do you want to continue to rest where you are, or does your body want to move? If so, what gesture or posture would your body like to take? Can you allow yourself the freedom to explore this? It’s easy to feel self-conscious even by yourself if you are not used to doing this kind of freeform moving, but with practice, it can be freeing, and healing. Feel free to put on music and move to it, allowing whatever expression your body wishes to make.

If you choose not to take this into movement, or even if you do, another avenue might be to use pastels, colored pencils, crayons, or other media to put the color(s) and shape(s) and any other imagery that came to you to paper. There is no judgment allowed in any of these activities, these are expressive processes designed to help you become familiar with your bodily sensations and honing in on what you need to feel calm, to release the energy associated with feeling sensations of anxiety, and to get to know what soothes you.

Another addition or alternative is to write in a journal about what you experienced, reflecting on what you felt, and what you understand about how you experience anxiety. Perhaps you have had some insight into what precipitates those feelings and how to reduce their occurrence, for instance by limiting your exposure to listening to the news only once a day, or planning a walk daily in a natural place that you know relaxes you.

Whatever avenue of exploration you choose, it is my hope that in knowing more about the sensations you experience and allowing yourself to express them, you will enjoy new possibilities of providing better self-care and healing, not just at this time, but for your lifetime.

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Debra Vivi Steinfeld, MS, ATR, LMHC-QS, I am an artist, registered art psychotherapist, licensed mental health counselor, and qualified supervisor in the state of Florida. I specialize in navigating all the facets of life stage changes and both chosen and unexpected life transitions.

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