THE BLOG
02/22/2016 07:47 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are You Anxious? You Are in Good Company

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What does a tall, bearded politician who presided over the Civil War have in common with an award-winning blonde actress who portrays superheroes? While being profoundly successful in their respective fields of endeavor, both Abraham Lincoln and Scarlett Johansson are also known to have struggled with bouts of anxiety. There is nothing too surprising about this, considering that many very successful people experience anxiety in some form in some area of their lives. In fact, anxiety is an incredibly common form of human discomfort.

And anxiety does not have to be a limiting factor in our lives. We can find balance, calm, confidence, and connection in the presence of this discomfort. I know this from firsthand experience. Much of my life was dominated by the thoughts and sensations of anxiety. In an effort to manage my discomfort, I tried just about everything. Most of my strategies only made things worse. When I gave up on trying to get rid of my anxiety, and started to look closely at what I was actually dealing with, things started to change rapidly. Now, my anxiety is a trigger for calm, curiosity, and gratitude rather than upset and desperation.

Anxiety is a biological phenomenon. It can be activated in response to a thought or something in the environment. Anxiety can also occur as a result of spontaneous activity in the endocrine or nervous systems. There are physiological markers for anxiety such as heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, perspiration, and so on. There are often physical sensations such as tightness in the chest or throat, discomfort in the stomach, activity in the hands or legs. And there are cognitive experiences such as negative or racing thoughts.

All of these are normal and no problem in and of themselves. What we do when these sensations and thoughts show up makes all the difference in terms of the quality of our lives. When we resist them, or try to get them to "go away," we often reinforce them or lengthen their duration. Many of the common techniques for managing anxiety -- procrastination, self-medication, aggression, perfectionism, avoidance, surfing the internet, being "in control," pursuing unhealthy relationships -- lead to even greater difficulties.

There is an entirely different approach. We can practice noticing and accepting these markers of anxiety rather than reacting to them. We can cultivate powerful internal resources such as awareness, openness, acceptance, gratitude, and compassion. We can access these resources when we need them and respond to challenges with calm and confidence. This is not just wishy-washy, touchy-feely, new-age jargon. There is real science that supports working with anxiety this way.

One of the most exciting discoveries of the last 30 years is that your brain is capable of rewiring itself in really profound ways. By engaging in this practice, you are literally building pathways in your brain that will give you access to powerful internal resources when anxiety arises. You will still get caught up from time to time, but you will recognize it sooner and sooner. In fact, with this practice you can develop a very deep level of calm and clarity even while everyone around you is incredibly frantic.

There is a simple daily practice that builds awareness and prepares us to self-regulate more successfully in the presence of anxiety. I call this practice 10-10-10. In this practice we begin and end the day with 10 breaths while we open our posture, smile gently, relax our breathing. We notice and accept the sensations in our body and the thoughts in our mind. This takes about 2 minutes. When our attention wanders, we just bring it back to what is going on in the present -- around us and within us. Over the course of the day, we practice connecting with this awareness and openness one breath at a time. We are shooting for refocusing 10 times a day in the times it takes to breathe a single breath. 10 breaths in the morning, 10 breaths at night, 10 breath over the course of the day.

As we practice paying attention to our experience, we begin to see the sensations and thoughts of anxiety sooner when they arise. We notice that we have a choice about how we respond. We can feel anxious and then respond by putting our attention and energy into what is most important to us and what is under our control. This is an amazing human capability. Anxiety is a real thing -- you are not making it up. And... you have what you need to work with it, even when it doesn't feel that way.

Dave Mochel is an internationally recognized teacher, coach, and speaker. He partners with individuals and organizations to optimize health, happiness, and effectiveness. Dave uses modern neuroscience and enduring wisdom to help people master the skillful use of attention, emotion, and energy. You can contact him at dave@appliedattention.com.