In my last blog post, I went over two ways to heal anxiety naturally, without drugs or pharmaceuticals. This post is a continuation, with three more strategies to try when working with anxiety. If you already read that post, go ahead and skip down to the healing modes. If you haven’t, here is some background information about how I approach anxiety from a somatic healing perspective (which conflicts in many ways with the medical model):
- Chronic anxiety is a form of suffering often caused by avoidance of painful emotions. Our modern culture pathologizes emotions, and many families (though they love their children) did not properly attune to and validate the child’s emotions during development. Therefore, most of us have closed off a part of ourselves because it wasn’t safe to experience it, or it was too painful. That separation causes suffering. When we add in difficult experiences that happened later in life, sometimes severe symptomology can result.
- Anxiety is a non-pathological, temporary condition, not fixed states of being. The condition fluctuates, even slightly, from day to day and moment to moment. The labels of “depressed” or “anxious” are misleading, because they imply a fixed biological state that does not change. Bringing awareness to the minute shifts within the present experience will bring a sense of impermanence, necessary for healing.
- Allowing the emotions to surface will heal the anxiety. The original stressor that caused the repressed emotions may have roots in our childhood experiences, family history, trauma, or current events. There may be many thoughts, interpretations, and core beliefs layered upon the original feeling, but these are not the feeling itself. Getting beneath the surface and experiencing the emotion in the body will allow the body’s own natural healing process to unfold.
Chronic anxiety is often a result of not feeling safe at some developmental stage. With that in mind, here are some more natural healing modes that might be helpful for chronic anxiety.
Healing Mode #3: Examining Painful Beliefs
Sometimes the emotion hiding beneath anxiety is not due to a single event, but a belief or set of beliefs that we developed over time. When we are very young and we don’t get our needs met, it’s easier to believe there’s something wrong with us, than to think the adults around us are crazy or unbalanced or that the world is a messed-up place. Everyone has unconscious beliefs about themselves, some healthy and some painful. The work of dealing naturally with anxiety and depression involves examining these unconscious beliefs. Only when we bring them to light can we choose not to act them out anymore.
This process doesn’t have to be long or difficult. It can happen gradually, on a day-to-day basis. It starts with examining our triggers. What is a trigger? It’s anything that sets us off into a strong reaction. The problem is not the trigger, it’s the painful beliefs that it brings up.
Each time we get triggered, it’s a gift. It’s an opportunity to examine what painful beliefs we might carry. Here is where the work gets tricky, though. Often these beliefs are somewhat ‘invisible’ – they operate just beneath our conscious awareness. That’s why it’s so easy to mix up the belief with reality. Here are some simple steps to examine these beliefs, that you can use whenever you get triggered:
- Separate your interpretation of what happened from the facts of what happened. The facts of the situation are simple, straightforward, and cannot really be argued with. “My friend didn’t call me on my birthday” is an example of a fact. “My friend doesn’t really care about me” is an interpretation, one of many that are possible. If you want to grow, you have to get really clear about what are the facts, and what are your interpretations/perceptions/evaluations. Write them down, if it helps.
- Realize that your perceptions, your interpretations, are not you. You are the one having the perception. Don’t judge yourself about it, just notice your perception and say “okay, that is my perception.” This step makes it easier to set your perceptions aside for a moment to get to the feeling.
- Get to the feeling underneath the perception. “I feel abandoned” is not a feeling. “I am sad, and afraid, and angry” — these are feelings. The feeling is something that any human could feel; it’s on the spectrum of emotion. It doesn’t inherently describe the situation, just the emotion. Here is a list of feelings you can work from to get clear.
- Feel the feeling in your body. Again, this can be tricky if you’re not used to it. The point is not to overwhelm your system or to wallow, but to dip your toe into it for at least a minute and let yourself directly experience it. If you’re already overwhelmed or exhausted, skip this step and find a way to take care of yourself. It’s important not to act on these feelings, not to hurt someone else or yourself, just feel them and breathe. Support yourself by connecting to your own Presence and inner consciousness. Bring in your allies, as described in the first meditation in Part 1. True emotions, when felt in the body, don’t last long – they only take a few minutes if we are present with them. We have to be able to set aside the mental “storytelling” long enough to just sit with it.
- Realize that your feelings are not you. This is by far the most important bit, even though I listed it last (we had to find our way to the feeling first). You are not your feelings. You are having feelings. Everyone has feelings, it’s only human. It is not pathological, and it definitely won’t last forever.
Find a way to create safety for yourself in this process. Many of us had events or situations in our upbringing that did not create safety. It wasn’t safe to express our feelings, so we shut them off. You can create that safety for yourself now. Safety can come from a supportive friend or confidant quietly holding space or listening. Safety can come from a room with a closed door, where you can be by yourself and protected from harmful distractions. Safety can come from our sensory perceptions; a warm cuddly blanket, a favorite pillow or stuffed animal, a cup of our favorite tea. Nurture your senses. Never forget your body is a creature – don’t abandon that creature.
Healing Mode #4: Expressive Writing
Even if you’ve never liked writing, don’t dismiss this one. Expressive writing is backed by many scientific studies over the years. The exercise is to write about a distressing experience for 15 minutes. Set a timer, sit down, and write – and do it daily for 3 to 4 days in a row. That’s it.
Given, this will only help your anxiety if you are able to bring to mind the details of an emotionally distressing experience. Even if the experience is not recent, it may help. If you can’t think of one, I recommend trying the methods I posted in my first post about anxiety.
Studies of expressive writing have revealed health benefits lasting 6 months or more. Study participants had marked improvement in physical and mental well-being in the months following completion of the exercise. They reported more happiness, less anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, improved immune function, and fewer visits to the doctor. They also reported better relationships, improved memory, and more success at work. And, these results have been duplicated over the years by other social scientists.
You can write at your own pace, in the first person or the third. I suggest sticking with one trauma for the whole three-day exercise, then see how you feel. You can always write more later.
I’ve tried this writing exercise myself and I can tell you, it works. I had an issue several years ago that was so painful for me to talk about, I couldn’t really get to the heart of the issue in therapy despite trying with several practitioners. I read about expressive writing on the internet and decided I had nothing to lose, so I sat down and tried it. I wrote for 20 minutes, on a timer. I filled up 4 pages the first day and another 4 pages the second. I didn’t even do the exercise the third day; I didn’t feel the need to. And I can tell you, that incident no longer triggers me. It no longer feels painful or difficult to talk about. Intrusive thoughts about it no longer creep in.
Some folks might have a resistance to writing, and I understand that. It may help to remind yourself that no one ever has to read it unless you want them to. You can even burn or shred the pages when you’re finished.
Why does it work? My personal interpretation is that writing allows you to witness your own experience from a nonjudgmental state. For most emotions, all they need in order to discharge is deep, compassionate and conscious witnessing. During a somatic therapy session, the therapist is the witness. If the client is able to sense the connection with the practitioner through the whole session and feel permission to have whatever emotions they are having, the magic of witnessing happens within that connection. When we write, our higher cognitive functions come online, creating an internal witness. Our internal witness then holds space for what we are feeling as we put it on paper. The process creates freedom and release from negative emotions.
Lots of space is given to the emotions in this exercise – 15 minutes of intentional time is plenty for emotional processing and in fact, most people’s nervous systems can’t really handle longer than that. The iterative nature of the exercise also helps, as you are going over the same incident several times. It’s like washing a dirty surface – you’re more likely to catch all the dirt if you go over it more than just once.
What have you got to lose? Make some time for this exercise and see if it works for you.
Healing Mode #5: Nutrition
Nutrition can be a big factor in our mental and emotional health. Your brain needs to use a huge percentage of the nutrients and oxygen you consume throughout the day in order to function properly. If you’re having anxiety, depression or other emotional difficulties, lack of proper nutrition could be playing an invisible role.
I recommend Ayurvedic nutrition as a starting place. Ayurveda is the oldest system of medicine in the world, and it is still used today primarily in India. It is known as the sister science to Yoga. While western medicine churns away with its expensive prescriptions and invasive procedures, Ayurveda focuses on gentler interventions — mainly dietary and lifestyle changes. Getting started with ayurveda is easy. You need to figure out your primary constitution, or dosha. Dosha translates roughly to “that which can get out of balance” and it’s the composition of elements or properties in your body. To get really specific, you need an ayurvedic doctor to take your pulses, but most people can get a general sense from taking a quiz. There are two that I recommend, Deepak Chopra’s quiz and Banyan Botanical’s Quiz.
Once you get a sense of your dosha, there are some general recommendations you can start to follow as to what foods to eat, when, and how to prepare them. How the food is prepared and seasoned is just as important, if not more important, than which foods you eat. I won’t go into depth about ayurveda here, as there are a multitude of resources online, but I will testify that it’s made a huge difference in my life.
I’ll end with a few simple recommendations I’ve learned from years of thinking and reading about food:
- Avoid processed foods. If it comes in a box, a can, or a plastic bag, it’s probably not that good for you. Check the ingredients. Does it contain preservatives, or chemicals you can’t pronounce? Our bodies evolved to eat whole foods, and the digestive system can sustain damage from being forced to deal with highly processed foods.
- Focus on whole foods and plants, especially fresh produce. If you can get it directly from a farmer or grow it yourself, even better. Our bodies evolved to eat whole foods, and mostly plants. When you read about blueberries or sweet potatoes or kale being great for you or bad for you because it contains this or that active ingredient, it’s often because some scientists tried to control for variables and test the effects of a single chemical extract from the plant. The truth is, plants contain micro-nutrients and multiple chemicals that probably interact on a molecular level, as well as inactive ingredients (like fiber) that may help the absorption of the others. The whole plant itself is likely to be better for you than any single extract taken from it.
- Balance your carbs, fats, and protein. Your body needs all three, and if you’re getting too much of one or the other, your brain may not have what it needs to stay balanced. Do this in a simple way by examining your meals, noticing which category might be over-balanced. Does it have too much starch? Too much protein? Too many carbs? Not enough fat? Add a side dish or snack to the meal to balance it out.
- Eat sprouted grains. Sprouting the grains before making the flour can have a huge impact on the nutritional content of the bread. Why is this? Grains and seeds have an anti-nutrient coating, designed to protect it until it lands on the soil and gets some rain. Exposing the grain or seed to the correct moisture levels actually sprouts it, which breaks open the coating and allows access to the nutrients. My personal favorite sprouted bread is Ezekiel bread because it’s available in the frozen section of most grocery stores.
- Add dark, leafy greens to your diet. I eat dark greens at least once a week. My favorite way to eat them is just to throw a big handful in my cast-iron skillet, and cook them down until they are about 1/3 to 1/2 their original volume. You can add spices or nuts to make it interesting, or just eat them on toast with some eggs. Dark greens have many micro-nutrients and anti-oxidants that bodies & brains love!
- Add herbal infusions to your diet. This is a simple, easy way to add nutrition. It comes from Susun Weed, the famed nutritionist. You can read more here.
Well, that sums it up! Thanks for reading. I hope one or all of these suggestions is useful, helpful, or beneficial. Did you like this post? Comment below! What resonated the most for you?