How to tame an anxious mind
This morning I was out walking my dog and watching his behaviour and realised it is a lot like mine, and many other peoples, mind.
My dog is a special kind of dog – he’s a rescue. I got him in September 2017 from Lort Smith Animal Shelter and I could see he was one of a kind. Unfortunately a lot of other people couldn’t see past the levels of anxiety he had so he was in there for 6 months. He had been ‘labelled’ by society as a problem child.
What I’ve learnt over time is that it’s not the ‘problem’ that is the problem, it’s the lack of understanding of the problem.
Now let’s look at what I noticed on this mornings walk…..
Lawrence, my dog, is on high alert as soon as he leaves the house. Ears up, eyes wide open, strong stance, panting, even frothing. His stress levels are up and anything that moves startles him, so those plastic bags and rubbish that fly around are a big challenge.
He doesn’t hear my commands because he’s trying to work out what is going to happen next, which corner will we turn, will there be a cat, is that a dog miles away he can hear, so many questions he’s trying to answer all at once.
And then there’s the noises that fire him up – the trucks, the motorbikes, the street sweepers. Things that are extra noise in his already frantic mind.
Then we’ll pass a house where 3 weeks ago there was a dog or a cat that heightened his anxiety and he will REMEMBER exactly where it is and automatically be on high alert.
All this happens within nanoseconds because he doesn’t understand any of these signals and the only emotion he knows how to choose in these situations is anxiety.
On the outside looking in one might say ‘holy heck woman, your dog is crazy arse aggressive and you’re a bad person for even taking him out in public’, and I can understand an ill informed persons point of view. For those that understand anxious dogs, the response is ‘keep going, continue to familiarise him and support him, give love, calmness and understanding and he will come around over time’.
Two very different angles.
So how is this like the human mind?
When people are stressed or have anxiety their mind is on high alert. They wake up on high alert, waiting for the unexpected. What might happen today? What might that person at work say or how might someone else’s mood be or might they forget something important?
Loud noises and sudden movements increase cortisol levels and heart rate. Everything becomes jumpy and edgy. The mind is constantly on edge waiting for the next fright. It’s like watching the scene from a scary movie over and over again.
The mind is racing as it tries to predict things that might happen in the future. Stress levels increase as panic sets in about the thing that hasn’t happened yet. Concentration levels drop as the person becomes consumed by what is going on in the mind. The mind becomes the ‘reality’.
Cortisol levels (stress hormone) rise, immune system is under pressure to bring the hormone levels back down, heart rate is up, breathing is short and shallow, everything is on edge.
There’s time spent mentally digesting what happened in the past, going over and over it to contemplate, understand and even try to change the outcome even though it’s done and gone. Finished.
This happens within nanoseconds and plays over and over and over and over for every waking minute.
It’s very difficult to be present in life when this constant thinking is consuming all the available energy.
Imagine it as trying to drive a car on a windy road, without a map, with a dirty windscreen at dusk and your window wipers just keep smearing the mud. You never really can see clearly or work out where you are going.
From those that don’t understand “this lady is a mad woman, speeding up, slowing down, braking, crazy shouldn’t be let out of the house”. For those that understand the conditions, the response is ‘keep going, work with the conditions, continue to familiarise yourself with the road, stay calm and enjoy the journey and you’ll get better over time’.
Not too dissimilar to the two views of the anxious dog….
So, how can we tame the anxious mind?
Honestly, it’s easier said than done. It requires time and patience.
Women like myself – strong, determined and driven – are naturally cognitive ‘in the mind’ as we have ideas, dreams, things to achieve and a passion to make a difference. The engine room (mind) is always working, yet sometimes it becomes so full that the cogs can’t turn as smoothly and some gunk filters in – like negative thoughts, self pressure, self criticism, and this can effect our mental and physical health.
I believe the first step to calming the anxious mind is understanding the anxious mind. You are not broken, or a failure or need to go to a mental home! You’re a high performer at heart. But the ways to manage all the goodness of life have crossed over with reaction and panic. We just need to find better resources to choose from. Imagine replacing overwhelm with structure. Replacing a racing heart with calm. Replacing fast paced with slower and being present.
How to tame an anxious mind:
learn to sit still and do nothing – very hard for action takers but your first key.
bring conscious awareness to what you are feeling and thinking – when you can connect with your thinking you then have power to control it.
know your triggers – noises, situations, physical locations.
schedule meditation – even if it is 1 minute to start with, it will make a huge difference *no thinking remember!
bring awareness to your breathing – slow it down, in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, out for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds and repeat 10 times.
regular sleep patterns – rest and recovery is vital for longevity of life. Allow your thoughts to float away each night and ‘choose’ if you want them to come back in the morning.
good nutrition – foods have a vibrational energy so choose foods which are natural and colourful to boost your mind and body function.
find nature – nature has a calming effect so take a walk along the beach, sit in the park or hike a hill.
structure to reduce overwhelm – each night before bed plan out the next day, write lists of tasks so you don’t need to remember them and allow yourself enough time between appointments for travel or just space to breathe.
make the least amount of decisions – decisions take brain power so get your clothes ready the night before, make meals in advance, follow your schedule, and learn to say no.
minimise stress and remove yourself from people that enjoy stress – some people live for stress so if that’s not something you want to experience then honour your time and reduce investing it with people that don’t help you to move forward.
journal your thoughts – write your thoughts down on paper so you don’t have to carry them in your mind, there’s no right or wrong way to do this, just get the words out and then you can decide what you want to do with them. Often clarity will come from journaling.
Stress and anxiety are natural conditions for the body to choose in particular times, like when you’re being chased by a hungry lion, but not something to experience on a constant basis so try these suggestions and find what works for you.
*you will need to be patient with yourself, implementing these changes won’t result in overnight change but with consistency and self love it will happen over time.