I have talked in past blogs about how to handle your anxiety when things get chaotic and interrupt your routine. Today I would like to discuss what happens when you get the really “big bad news”. A family member has cancer, the baby you are carrying has something wrong with it, you are getting a divorce. How do you cope? When anxiety goes from zero to warp speed and threatens never to leave, it feels like it may become a way of life. That terror that resides in your chest or the knot and nausea that come to dwell in your stomach are a constant reminder that your life may never be "normal" again.
The first thing to do when you get uncomfortable news is to focus on the felt sense of whatever emotion is evoked in your body. It could be that your muscles tense, you get a knot in your stomach, a tightness in your chest, or your breathing becomes short and rapid. Notice those symptoms, and actually do of the opposite of what your body wants to do. If you notice that it wants to tense up, then purposefully let your muscles go limp. If you tighten in your stomach, release the muscles and breathe relaxation into that area. If your breaths become short and rapid, make a point of taking slow deep breaths. This will help to stop that hormonal cascade that begins with a shot of adrenaline when you get upsetting news. If you intervene immediately it can prevent may unpleasant symptoms from taking root in your body.
Seeing emotions as literally being energy in motion in your body that want to be expressed (or actually squeezed out,) allows you to visualize allowing the energy to exist without resistance and to assist that energy in moving through the body in a way that minimizes the effect of those negative emotions. The key is not resisting the negative feeling. When a negative feeling is present we tend to tighten around it because we are afraid that if we allow it, it will get worse and become more unpleasant. Actually the opposite is true. When we allow the sensation to pass through like the lines passing across the screen of an EKG machine then we free our bodies up from become a home to that trapped energy.
Breathing properly is vital in this process. Slow deep nourishing breaths are in order. When “bad” things happen we forget to breathe. Slow deep nourishing breaths allow the energy to pass, and keep our bodies pH balanced. A good balance of the in-and-out breath keeps the pH stable in the body. Breathing in more increases acidity; breathing out more creates alkalinity, as it gets rid of carbonic acid through the carbon dioxide we breathe out. “Hyperventilating” means a lot of breathing out, so making us too alkaline, which has its problems like any imbalance (it may cause numbness or tingling in the extremities, lightheadedness, fainting); then one has to “breathe into a paper bag,” that is, breathe back in some of the acids we got rid of, to regain the proper balance of acids and bases in the blood. Paying attention to the body helps us balance the breathing.
Instead of receiving information as "good" or "bad," become curious about what you hear. It is easy to jump to conclusions based on what you have experienced in the past or by facts that you know or by stories that you have heard from others in your situation. Be curious about whether this situation HAS to play out like you would assume, with you “freaking out” and adopting a tragic story based on your negative feelings. Be curious if you have to freak out at all. Just because it is expected that you freak out, doesn't mean that is the response that you have to have. Instead, adopt a sense of wonder. "I wonder how this will change my life?" "I wonder what skill I will learn thorough this?" "I wonder what the gift will be in this for me?"
I am not advocating denial of your circumstances, or a Pollyanna attitude, I am just stating that it seems many of us respond to unexpected news in ways that are reflexive, knee jerk reactions, in ways that we believe we are "supposed to" react. I wonder if we get centered and grounded by taking some deep breaths and focusing on feeling our bodily sensations for a moment (“I feel my feel on the floor, I feel the chair to my back, I feel the cool air in the room”) if we might buy ourselves the time to choose a different response? I wonder if choosing that different response might put us in that "road less traveled” place, a place that is more peaceful and honoring of the experience, and instead of bringing us a sure tragedy, might bring us a gift instead?
Carolyn Tucker LAPC is a psychotherapist practicing in Conyers. She specializes in the treatment of anxiety. For more information call 770-789-0847 or see www.carolyntuckertherapist.com.