My family has pet bunnies: two tiny creatures who, even after years of us holding them, act as if we might eat them every time we approach. The other day I sat down with the fluffy white one, John, who recently received a haircut courtesy of my three-year-old daughter, who, perhaps in solidarity, also cut her own hair. As I held him against my chest, I could feel his little heart racing. Soaking in a moment of quiet in the sun, I measured my breath, smelling the lemon blossoms in the air. As John and I sat there, his heartbeat slowed, and his little haunches relaxed. I think a lot about our tender animal bodies: how we endure threat, upset, and trauma and how we recover.
As a therapist and a mother of three small children, I also think a lot about how I manage my own stress. I find my own center so that I can clearly detect, feel, and hold space for what comes up with my clients without mixing in my own emotional reaction. I try to soothe my own buzzing agita so that I don’t put it on my children. That is not to suggest that one should strive to be in some unattainable state of emotional neutrality. I am speaking more to the moments or days when we are moving through life unknowingly in a heightened state, when everything becomes a challenge, we get worn down, and it’s easy to come undone by any upset.
I believe the first piece of managing anxiety—or at least a good place to begin—is to develop an understanding of it.
Simply recognizing your anxiety as anxiety is a good first step: “Ah, it’s you, anxiety,” I say when I find myself agitated, abuzz, and worried about tending to seven things at once. “Anxiety, now is the time to rest,” I tell myself when I am kept awake in the middle of the night by a busy brain, my chest tight with tension.
Anxiety can stem from many sources. Those include fear of the unknown, desire for control, an overwrought nervous system, or simply having excess energy. If we can identify the root of what we’re feeling and observe anxiety as a defense mechanism in overdrive, we can start to parse out the actual level of threat we’re facing. For example: Getting lunch on the table does not have the same stakes—nor does it require the same intensity—as responding to one of my kids falling from the monkey bars. If I’m feeling stressed about making lunch and reacting to that experience as if one of my kids has just fallen from the monkey bars, I can learn to recognize that anxiety, rather than the experience itself, is what’s shaping how I’m feeling and behaving. If I can recognize that, then I can create just the tiniest bit of space from the feeling. Maybe enough to take a breath and tend to myself.
Once we understand anxiety and how it’s working in us (or against us), we can create some space to remind ourselves that we have some agency over our own experience. We can hold ourselves gently and practice being present. I do not apply this to a moment when we are actively being traumatized; this is for the moments when we cannot slow down our thoughts, when our fear is stopping us from doing things that bring us pleasure, or when we are exhausted by our own internal engine. My favorite ways to slow down—and help my clients slow down—are derivatives of mindfulness and creative practices.
Sometimes tending to ourselves can be as simple as noticing when we feel good. When in doubt, splash some cool water on your face; remind yourself that in this moment, you are safe; and take a deep breath. Treat yourself with compassion and gentleness. Now is not the time to for self-flagellation. The bunny in my arms did not calm down because I shouted at him or forced him to do it. Treat yourself as you would treat that little bunny who is scared, uncertain, and overwhelmed: Take a breath, feel the sun on your face, be gentle, and reassure yourself, “In this moment, I am safe.”