Discovering, befriending and naming your worry transforms and heals your relationship to your own stress.
Everyone I work with wants their worries, anxiety and fears to go away. It’s natural and normal to want the pain to stop, the unease and stuckness to recede. The truth is, your anxieties can calm and stop stressing you out, but ignoring or waging war on worry is a sure-fire recipe for more worry.
A first step to move out of the stuck patterns of anxiety – the chronic worry, lack of motivation, insecurity, stressful thoughts and fatigue – is to know and name the sensations that are annoying you today.
Here’s why this technique is so important.
Have you ever been to a playground or youth sporting event where there are a lot of children? Notice what happens when just one of those kids calls “Mom!” Yes, fifteen women answer expecting that the call is their child. Or imagine going to the dog park and none of the owners have named their dogs. It will be a stressful herding effort to get each pet in the car and home again!
Names provide definition, meaning and most importantly a calm connection.
When we know someone's name, we initiate a relationship with that person. Have you noticed how in some stores the cashiers will call you by name after seeing your credit card? Names are powerful connectors and businesses want to use that power to create more sales.
Now let’s apply this knowledge to stress and worry.
I was talking with a fifteen-year-old high schooler the other day. She told me that her anxiety and worry has been with her throughout her life. She went on to say that as she has gotten older, her anxiety has increased and grown with her. As we talked, she described that she used to be able to get away from the pain by staying occupied and never alone with her thoughts. However, she now feels more stress, acknowledging that the worry has crept into her social and school life, invading times that used to be fun.
This young woman is smart. She has realized that no matter how she tries, she will not outrun a part of herself. Ignoring, disowning and pushing away stress is an ineffective strategy. However, it is the technique most often prescribed in daily living. We tell ourselves and others, “Don’t worry about it! Think positively and it will go away.”
When you deny and ignore worried parts of you, you undermine your own ability to calm yourself.
Let’s return to the example of the moms at the playground. Think about how frustrated the child is when they call for mom and ten of the wrong mom’s respond. Notice too how the stressed moms begin to tune out calls, tired of jumping for another person’s child.
If you experience all stress as an unpleasant experience and call it the exact same thing in your mind, how can you ever respond in an effective way? There is not enough relationship and specificity between you and your internal experience. Like the moms and kids in the park, you will respond inaccurately to the wrong cues or ignore your needs completely, too confused by the many worried “calls” to answer. Internally, this feels overwhelming which is fuel for more worry and anxiety.
Now think about how frustrating it is for the owners in the “No name dog park” example. When calling a dog without a name or personal signal to connect (like a whistle), it is frustrating and disempowering. Owners will be seeking any means of personal connection to gain control. Can you imagine? The owners are running, kneeling, imploring, cajoling and of course bringing out treats to entice the pets. Both the dogs and the owners feel frenzied and out of control. Certainly their worry is doubling by the minute.
Contrary to popular belief, creating a name and relationship with the parts of you that are stressed out does not increase the worry. In fact, it calms anxiety and empowers you to be helpful . Think about that for a moment. There is amazing power in being so attuned with your worries that when one thought or sensation begins to run wildly, you can kindly call its name, offer some care and, like the dogs in the park, take it home to rest.
If this sounds a little strange, that is normal. Read on for my three ways to get you started.
1. When you feel a little worry, anxiety or stress, slow down for one moment.
I often tell clients to use any excuse to have a moment with yourself. This might be a bathroom break, going to get some water, a brief walk or even a moment to just close your eyes. As you practice, you will be able to do this more spontaneously. Begin to gently pay attention to your breathing, slowing or deepening it as feels best to you.
2. Get curious about where you feel stress and anxiety in your body or mind.
What are the qualities of the anxiety? Imagine that you are getting to know this part of yourself as you would a person or a pet. Let the worry show you who it is rather than telling it who it is. If this is too hard, that’s alright. Simply breathe and if it’s possible, express a little caring or curiosity to the worry. Just say “Hi”. You are on your way and some relationships take longer than others. (Think about the dog who has come from a shelter and needs a little extra time).
3. Now that you have a clearer sense of how this particular anxiety presents in you, you can give it a name.
This name can be a broader description like My Four-Year-Old or a specific physical quality like the Heavy Chest/Tight Throat. You may actually find a name like Ziggy or Pesky or Frank. Let whatever you discover while focusing toward your worry guide your naming. You (and your part) can always change it later as you grow in relationship. It’s similar to how we name children and pets and then they often grow into a nickname.
This is the beginning of your journey together with your worry, anxiety and stress. Remember that no part of you is trying to hurt you. Take a deep breath and congratulate yourself for your discovery. This relationship will be a boon for you forever.
You can find much more information on true relief from anxiety in my book: Calm Your Worries: Unlock Your Secret Code to Lasting Stress Relief and Self-Confidence.