So. If you’ve been in therapy or have been reading my blog, you probably already know the following strategies for dealing with anxiety:
- Identify and challenge incorrect/catestrophic underlying assumptions and automatic thoughts.
- Use grounding, self-soothing, and distraction to minimize physiological arousal during intense anxiety.
- Engage in small behaviors (outside your comfort zone, but not traumatic) according to your more realistic and grounded-in-reality beliefs. (The most critical part, but the part everyone hates.)
- Mindfully observe the thoughts and release them so they lose their power. (Very effective, yet requires tons of practice. Second most hated anti-anxiety method. But CRAZY effective when actually practiced.)
- Do a happy dance whenever you accomplish a tiny victory. (This and the correct meds are everyone’s favorites.)
However. In this post I propose a new tactic (which has a basis in mindfulness, and has been described in different ways by people with anxiety and dismissively taken-for-granted in books, but has not yet been researched outright…So discuss this with your therapist who actually knows you before you try it. K?) , hereby called “Intentionally Detaching.”
Buddhist psychology tells us that suffering is a given, and the basis of suffering is “wanting” or “attachment.” If we just detached and stopped wanting things and people to be a certain way, we wouldn’t feel so angry, anxious, or distressed as we roll around in the inevitably yucky parts of our lives.
I totally see this as true, as it is the “wanting others to like you,” not the fact that others think your breath is bad and you talk about your cats too much, that is hurtful; It is the “wanting of nice things and prestigious status,” not the fact that you lost your job, that is painful; It is the attachment to the ways we think our lives and our relationships should be, not the actual bumps and bruises along the way, that really messes with us.
So. If you want to know how to really cease to want, and really detach from all outcomes all the time in all areas of your life, my honest answer is: Hell if I know. Siddhartha, in his attempt to detach from all desires and attachments, stopped eating and drinking. Then he almost died, so…
My friend, who is also very wise in a Siddhartha-ish manner when she drinks wine, once responded, “But who wants to just survive?” when I pointed out that even if we lost our jobs we’d still have beating hearts and loving families in our vans down by the river. So complete nonattachment, while possible according to Buddhism, is not most people’s goal.
And because my readers are real people who don’t live in Lalaland and don’t have four decades to practice meditation, I am going to explain the more useful technique of “intentional detachment” just from the distress, just for the moment, just to get you through the tough-but-helpful stuff.
Step one: Notice your anxiety. Does it manifest as stomach tension, catestrophic thoughts, sleeplessness, etc.?) Do you notice it when you are around certain people or places?
Step two: Determine whether the anxiety is actually alerting you to danger. (If you are avoiding having your abusive ex-husband over for Thanksgiving dinner, for example, you will reason that this is emotionally dangerous, and therefore you would give yourself permission to “avoid” it. The fall-out of not subscribing to shoulds and setting limits with others is that others will be disappointed in you, so your new task becomes telling your ex “no.”)
Step Three: INTENTIONALLY DETACH while going TOWARD scenarios that aren’t actually dangerous.
If I know that my relationship sucks, and I’m eating four jumbo-size bags of chips every day and putting in 80 hour work weeks to avoid letting this truth sink in, I better do a little detaching from my fears before I am able to put one foot in front of the other. I might try out one of the techniques below before I can even say aloud that I’m not happy, let alone go to a therapist or talk to my spouse fully truthfully.
If I struggle with accepting the fact that my narcissistic soon-to-be ex will never ever ever ever stop seeing me as crazy, I might do well to intentionally detach when he tries to rope me into a fight or says something cutting.
If, in order to avoid the imperfection and vulnerability of human connection, I bury myself in 80 hours of made-up work crises, I might have to intentionally detach from my distress as I gear up to close my laptop and sit down to dinner with my family or before asking my husband how his day was. (And, maybe, after I have made this change, my crappy husband won’t be acting quite so crappy any more. Funny how little changes can disrupt the whole homeostasis of one’s life and one’s relationships.)
Detaching from a truth is not the same as “denying.” You know you are not stuck in denial as evidenced by the fact that you are no longer avoiding helpful behaviors. “Detaching” is simply not allowing your brain to “get spun up” or “carried away” in the negative feeling. Psychologists have long known that the brains of anxious people tend to perseverate, obsess, and add-to negative thoughts as opposed to let go/detach from split-second thoughts, and this makes anxiety infinitely worse. In fact, it may be the basis for pathological anxiety. Detaching is simpy intentionally breaking that loop between the information entering your cortex and the information traveling directly to your emotional centers.
Ways to detach from the moments during anxiety (when your mind acknowledges an icky reality or when you are faced with engaging in an icky-but-beneficial behavior):
- Imagine you are someone else. Seriously. Adapt a persona if you are giving a speech; Pretend you are acting or role-playing when you ask your boss for a raise; Be an outsider-looking-in as you begin the break-up conversation. Look at the situation from the perspective of a researcher/detective/archeologist/reporter .
- Do the brain’s equivalent of “hands over ears while saying lalalala.” Engage the part of your brain that processes verbal info (thoughts that begin with “what if”and “oh no!”) with something to drown-out the anxious messages. Go over the lyrics of a song in your head; say the alphabet backward, or silently tell yourself the story of the day you brought home your puppy. Just engage your brain in something verbal. Be in that story, not in the stress. When you catch yourself slip from the song or the story, just go right back to it without beating yourself up.
- Do the brain’s equivalent of “a toddler closing his eyes and thinking the world dissappeared.” Truth be told, most anxious thoughts are visual, not verbal, so inserting a visual scene into your brain is especially useful to drown out the anxious. Right before you disappoint your family by revealing the fact that there is no room in the budget for a vacation (and during the upsetting aftermath), might as well paint a specifically-detailed beach scene in your mind. Or, as soon as you notice anxiety, absorb your mind in building a castle or a roller-coaster, specifically imagining each and every color, texture, and detail. Some people even build an imaginary barrier/boundary/bubble around themselves during anxiety-provoking exchanges with others. It may be helpful to even imagine the boundary with several layers of different materials and colors.
- Do whatever works for you. For me, there is not special “technique” that I rely-on to detach from distress. It is just a mindset or a zone that I go into (maybe a little like being in a tunnel?) that is hard to describe. I think more important than the actual mechanism you use to detach is the fact that you notice your trigger and the need to detach before your anxiety gets too spun-up.
Step Five: Do a wild happy dance and pat yourself on the back for doing HARD THINGS!!
And there you have it, a new way to deal with anxiety, which is intended mostly for my highly sensitive readers that probably wouldn’t even have it occur to them that it’s possible to go to your happy place during distress….and that I must add is NOT intended for people who tend to detach and dissociate anyway because too much ignoring and tuning out can quickly turn one into a cold and narcissistic jackass or a person who is empty and depressed. (See my disclaimer at the beginning. Talk to your therapist about trying this!)
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