I have struggled with anxiety my entire life, starting as far back as I can remember. My anxiety presents in the stomach. Whether it be nausea, butterflies or vomiting, I literally will experience "gut feelings". I could write an entire post on my struggles in this area: the 60 days I missed in sixth grade due to transitioning to Catholic school with an abusive nun, the countless bathrooms I retreated to when in public situations, and the lifelong battle I have fought with overcoming the fear of public speaking. But that is a post for another time.
What I wanted to focus on instead is where I am today with my anxiety and a conversation I had yesterday with my therapist.
Over the past 44 years, I have come so very far. I have made a successful career and I speak in public quite frequently. That has been a result of 4 decades of working through my anxieties and putting myself in uncomfortable situations over and over again. However, I found that during COVID, I was able to isolate for two years. Being put in a bubble for that long and then being catapulted back out into the real world again, put me through a few setbacks. I decided to seek some help to get back to a healthier spot and to help my relationship with anxiety.
I decided to seek the help of somatic healing.
Somatic healing acknowledges the interconnectedness of our mind, body, and spirit, recognizing that true healing encompasses more than just the physical symptoms. It embraces the wisdom of the body and its innate capacity to restore balance and well-being. Also known as somatic therapy or somatic experiencing, somatic healing is a therapeutic approach that emphasizes the importance of bodily sensations, emotions, and the mind-body connection in the healing process. It draws upon various disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, and body-centered practices to address physical, emotional, and psychological imbalances.
How does it work? Well, while being guided by a therapist in a very safe place, you start to trigger some of your anxiety experiences and as you start getting anxious, you pay attention to what your body is feeling. You might notice your heart race, your breathing get faster, your stomach hurt, or your throat tighten. Instead of trying to ignore it, push it down, or force it away -- instead, the exercise forces you to confront it. The more you acknowledge the feelings and discuss them, you'll start to notice they will subside and dissolve away. This approach allows us to take control of our own body and work WITH the anxiety instead of trying to tamp it down.
And it has been life-changing.
Yesterday, we were discussing a recent networking event I attended. It was really hot in the room, my blood sugar was low, and it was one of the first large events I had attended since COVID had begun. I could feel my throat closing and my stomach in knots and I felt awful. I was explaining this to him and we started to re-enact the feelings. I was able to successfully confront them and manage them away sitting there in his office.
At that point I said, "Jake, this is great and all. I feel I'm great at getting this anxiety to leave when I'm in this safe space. But when I'm in a hot room full of 100 people and I have a glass of wine in my hand -- I can't just run to the bathroom to walk this anxiety away. What am I supposed to do in the moment?"
What he said was amazing. He said, "Michelle, you can never stop anxiety. You can never wash away trauma. It will always be there. What you can do instead is give it a larger container."
So I said, "So you mean if you take a drop of red dye and put it in a spoon of water, that water is going to be RED. If you put that same drop of dye and put it in a swimming pool, you won't even notice it?"
And he nodded and said, "EXACTLY."
We all have these permanent red stains that have happened to us throughout our lives. What most of us tend to do with these red stains is we make ourselves small -- we contract around the pain or anxiety and we hyperfocus on it. It can paralyze us.
LOOK HOW RED THIS IS! OUT OUT DAMN SPOT! I WILL NEVER BE THE SAME AGAIN!
What we should do instead is grow bigger than the pain. We acknowledge it, but when we do, we choose to work with it. We give it a name. We say, "Hey, I realize you are here. I am going to cooperate and live alongside you and I am going to be just fine with you here."
We did a few more exercises where I brought on an anxiety reaction. I felt my throat closing, my stomach clamping, my muscles tensing. And what I did instead of tightening up and getting nervous, I instead visualized myself getting BIGGER. I opened my chest, I imagined my throat bigger, I allowed my muscles to relax - and the anxiety melted away. The bright red spot in my spoon of a mind became instantly diluted by my large energetic body that I had created.
I left the office empowered. It was an amazing feeling to be able to finally start to have control over my anxiety versus my anxiety having control over me.
Thank you Jake for this valuable lesson that I hope to expand upon as I continue to grow through this journey called life.