Anxiety Tip: Be the Observer
When experiencing anxiety, it can seem like things are out of control. It can feel like being in the middle of an intense storm, without even a glimpse of sunlight. And all of the physical sensations – the sweatiness, the rapid heartbeat, the shallow breathing – and all of the mental experiences – the lack of focus, the wave of panic, the desperation – can be overwhelming and consuming.
If we find ourselves in the storm of anxiety, a useful technique is to observe what is happening. So, in the mind, simply noticing what is happening and describing it or labelling it, as though we are describing it to a friend over the phone. The key is to not get too personal with it, being as neutral as possible. So, for example, an observation may be as simple as, “I feel anxious,” or it might go something like this:
I feel anxious right now. This started about ten minutes ago. I am at home, on the couch. The TV is on. I feel pressure in my chest, but I feel a bit calmer than a moment ago.
Another way to think about it, is to just describe the facts of the situation, almost like the narrator on a wild animal show. In this case, the facts can include details about feelings, thoughts and physical sensations, but we are noticing them in an informative way.
There is a choice on whether or not to include observations like: this is normal, I am safe, this has happened before and I was ok, etc. These are value statements and while they can be soothing, they can also reinforce the idea of something being or “good” or “bad,” and they can also imply that a situation can be “right” or “wrong,” and that can have negative impacts. So, it is important to resist any urge to judge the experience, and this can be easier said than done. For example, noticing that “I am safe” sometimes creates subsequent cascade of judgement or negative self-talk around the situation such as: there’s nothing to worry about, I am fine, I shouldn’t be doing this, this is always happening, I don’t know what I’m doing, I can’t find a way out of this. So, it is helpful to keep the observations as simple and neutral as possible.
The observation technique can be repeated for as long as it takes. If the anxiety subsides, but then starts to increase again, just put on the observer hat again and notice what is happening. Keep on observing until the anxiety subsides, or until focus has shifted to something else.
And this technique works because when we are observing it gives us some distance from the situation. Being the observer allows us to use the logical, analytical part of our mind which, as it happens, is not the part where the emotion and feelings reside. So, we get some separation from the chaos of fear. Observing what is happening pulls us out of the storm and into the sunlight.