‘Do you have the patience to wait til your mud settles and the water is clear?’ Lao Tzu
Those of us who experience anxiety will usually travel through the following sequence each and every time we feel anxious:
Something happens that triggers anxiety.
We have certain conscious or unconscious thoughts about this.
We experience uncomfortable sensations or emotions.
We react to these sensations or emotions by trying to change or get rid of them in some way.
We feel relieved temporarily.
Something similar happens that triggers anxiety.
We follow the same sequence.
If we were to look at this as a cycle it might look something like this:
It’s easy to see that the more we tread the same path, the more ingrained this becomes.
Quite simply, for something to change we need to interrupt this cycle. At first, most people find it easier to focus on changing their reaction to the feeling of anxiety, rather than the largely automatic thoughts that precede this. With this in mind, it makes sense that somewhere between noticing that we’re feeling anxious and acting on our anxiety in some way we need to add another step – a gap, or a space that allows us to think through what we need to do to change how the rest of the cycle plays out. If we do this there is a strong chance that the thoughts and feelings will alter and the original fear or trigger will diminish significantly next time we’re confronted with it.
So how do we create this space?
Use the STOP acronym:
Stop – when you notice yourself wanting to ‘get rid of’ the feeling.
Take a breath – nice slow breaths help the body to relax and feel more grounded.
Observe – simply notice the sensations, thoughts and emotions as they move through your body and mind without judgment. See them for what they are. Allow them to come and go – make room for them. When we stop fighting with what is actually happening, we often find that it loses its power over us.
Proceed – continue on with life ‘now, what was I doing’.
Take 5 – Take 5, 10, 15 or more minutes to mentally step out of the situation before responding.
Change your environment – take a moment to physically step out of the situation before responding.
Phone a friend – talk to someone you trust about how you’re feeling. Allow them to help you identify your options.
Write it down – Keep a journal or notebook aside for the purpose of venting and working through uncomfortable feelings. It can be the next best thing to a friend or therapist!
Consider the ‘grey areas’ – When we think in very black and white, or all-or-nothing terms, it can be difficult to see other options. Take some time to think about what other options you might have in a situation. There are usually many, it’s just that we have become accustomed to choosing the most automatic one.
How else might you create a gap between feeling anxious and responding?