Protecting your shaky insides (or how to protect your emotional self when you just want to scream or disappear)

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I tend to feel overwhelmed when I become aware of bad stuff.  To be fair, I initially feel a sense of alertness, like when I hear an unfamiliar noise at night and all my sinuses magically clear and I can smell, hear and even see everything clearly – until I can assure myself that all is well and I can move back into relaxed or standby mode.

If I can’t reassure myself that all is well, my emotions move to take me into overwhelm.

The fires in our recent Australian summer are a great example of heightened alertness for many of us. If the things we can do seem ineffective, over time, we grow fatigued and overwhelmed from all the alertness. Alertness turns to powerlessness. Everything just seems out of whack, unsafe, hopeless.

COVID-19 is doing our heads in and leaving us overwhelmed.  No need to itemise here all the losses people are experiencing.  It is touching all of us (aka bashing us over the head) in more substantial ways every day – hence the collective feeling of being overwhelmed.  After we’ve done all the things we can do, ie, social distancing, voluntary isolation, elbow coughing, washing hands – all protecting the physical self  – how can we protect our internal selves from the crippling psychological effects of fear and anxiety that have moved in and, like thoughtless relatives, are wearing us out?

One thing that can help is to visualise putting up a shield of sorts around yourself.  It can be like a windscreen or something much thicker. Someone told me that they see their shield as a bubble.  Everything that comes toward her that is not in her control, or her responsibility, can just bounce off.  This is useful for the everyday kinds of stresses that are experienced in families or workplaces too.  She says, “When people at work say hurtful things, it just goes splat on the outside of the bubble and I don’t take it on board”.  

Sometimes shutting off from some of the social media bombardment can be vital in assisting us in shielding our sensitive inner world.  Giving our emotions time to re-balance rather than staying on continual high alert to every element of bad news. Too much is just too much!

Another inner-self-protection measure is to change our relationship with the Anxious Part – this is the part of our internal system that keeps us on high alert but sometimes in quite extreme ways. I suggest that rather than hating or stressing about the Anxious Part, we can notice it as a valued part of the self that is trying to assist us in some way. For some of us it has been a constant presence for most of our lives, so it makes sense to try to get to know it instead of just hating and rejecting it out of hand.

You could try this: next time your Anxious Part is activated (some people notice it as a sensation like butterflies in their stomach, tightness in their chest or head, tension across the shoulders or tingling in other parts of the body) say something like, ‘Hello Anxious Part.  I see you there.  I realise you’re here for a reason. I wonder what has activated you right now.’

It sounds a bit corny I suppose, however I’ve been amazed at how quickly this works for people in changing the way they feel. 

Anxiety is present in our systems to prepare us for the challenging things in life, ie, getting us on the right bus at the right time, on the right day, for our job interview – and making sure we’re wearing matching socks. If we can acknowledge that anxiety is just doing its job to assist us, in some instances by preparing us for the worst-case scenario, we can choose to offer it respect for the helpful role it is trying to play. 

Perhaps, rather than hating the Anxious Part or collapsing under its weight, we can offer a kind of non-judgmental curiosity. In effect, we are changing our mind-set to working with this part rather than fighting against it. The anxiety (just like sadness, anger and fear) begins to behave in extreme ways if it is misunderstood, criticised and ignored.  Anyone treated like that might behave poorly.  Anxiety, as part of our inner world, is no exception.

Once you can observe your anxiety, you can offer it some understanding for its role in trying to keep you alert to danger, to a schedule, to potential failure or to an opportunity.  You can respectfully ask anxiety to step down from its extreme position and stop overwhelming the system.

It might be helpful to know that you can begin to become more familiar with your Anxious Part as soon as you decide to try.  As long as you determine to remain curious and non-judgmental, there is no reason you couldn’t experiment with some understanding the next time your anxiety is triggered.

* This way of changing your relationship with your difficult emotions can also prove very effective for adolescents and children who are struggling with them.

* Sometimes it is challenging to look at the Anxious Part with curiosity, especially if it has been a long term problem in your life.  If this is your experience, you could consider seeking the assistance of a professional to do this work.