By Dennis Tirch, PhD, ACT Trainer
Anxiety, when it descends upon us, is all encompassing. Anxiety activates our threat-detection system and involves attention, physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Our thoughts can become extremely negative and provoke even more fear and dread when we’re anxious.
These thoughts can stir up a common form of anxiety-driven thinking, typically referred to as worry, which involves generating representations of things that could go wrong in the future, usually in a “what if” format: What if I lose my job? What if I get cancer? What if I can’t make any friends?
The ability to imagine a range of possible threats and prepare a number of protection responses has much to do with how we’ve evolved to deal with threats.
When hypothetical risks and dangers show up, our threat-detection system may treat them as real; similarly, when these worries arrive, they can stir up or compound distressing emotions and control our behavior. Our attention narrows to focus on these thoughts, and we may then have a narrower range of possible behaviors available to us. This kind of thinking may have had its evolutionary usefulness, but it isn’t often very helpful for us now.
Compassionate thinking brings your compassionate self to the aid of your anxious self by helping you see things, or think about things, in a different way. Your anxious self might be quick to jump to conclusions, because of its orientation to being “better safe than sorry.” It will also be bound to your memories; so if you’ve had a bad experience in the past, your anxious self will remind you about that and reactivate those feelings of fear and dread. However, when your compassionate attention alerts you to the onset of anxiety, you can choose to move toward compassionate thinking to help you face your worry, fear, and panic.
Let’s take a closer look at this process to see how you can actually work with compassionate thinking to take care of yourself when you respond to anxiety.
Imagine that you’re stuck in heavy traffic, which is causing you to run late for an important meeting. Suddenly you start to feel panicked; your stomach tightens and maybe you have a tingling in your fingers. At the same time, your anxiety generates the following thoughts:
• Oh my god, I’m starting to feel bad; I might be sick.
• What happens if I have to throw up and I have to lean out of the car?
• I’m stuck in a traffic jam and I can’t pull over!
• This is terrible— unbearable. What are they going to think of me at the meeting? I’ve been trying to set up this deal for weeks, and now this happens! What if it falls through?
• Oh no, my heart is racing. What if I’m having a heart attack and die
Just writing this makes me feel a bit of anxiety in my chest. Sometimes it’s scary to even think about a situation like this one.
While it’s understandable to get irritated and angry with your anxiety (Why does this have to happen now? What the hell is the matter with me? I hate feeling like this!), your task in evoking your compassionate self is to be at your most supportive.
The key process involves validating your feelings while being kind to yourself and recognizing them as unpleasant.
You don’t need to tell yourself that you’re being silly or neurotic or pathetic or that you just have to grin and bear it, because thoughts like these are not very kind or supportive.
What would you do, how would you react, and how would you feel if you engaged your compassionate self right now?
Compassion may be one of the most important processes in psychotherapeutic effectiveness. You can train your compassionate mind.
Learning to slow your panic can be helpful. One way to do this is to connect with your sense of wisdom, authority, and a real commitment to try to be helpful, not on trying to come up with the most accurate assessment of the situation. Imagine yourself as if you were hovering slightly above the anxiety and then expanding to capture the anxiety. Can you see how much bigger you are than the anxiety? When you do, you’ll be able to watch your experience of panic unfold in safety. This is part of the science of compassion.
How to Engage Compassionate Thinking
First, let’s focus on practicing soothing—rhythm breathing, which will help your breath slow down. Just for a moment, find a place to rest in your breath.
When we get anxious, we tend to speed up our breathing, and it becomes shallow because of the tension in our bodies. You’re not using soothing- rhythm breathing in an attempt to banish your anxiety or struggle against it in an effort for control; you’re simply preparing the way for your compassionate self and coming into the moment with a warm- hearted acceptance, as much as you can.
Now, close your eyes and engage your soothing-rhythm breathing, adopt a soft facial expression, and imagine talking with a friend in a firm but kind tone of voice. Sit upright with your back straight and supported, and engage with your sense of dignity and strength.
Next spend a moment or two imagining seeing your compassionate self from the outside. See how you stand, how you talk, how you look, and how people relate to you. Then bring yourself back into being this compassionate self, with as much warmth and kindness as you can.
Next, refocus on those alternative thoughts very slowly indeed, and on the genuine desire to be helpful with the difficult feelings you’re experiencing— don’t rush it, and continue to breathe rhythmically and calmly.
What did you notice? Did you find yourself feeling more grounded and more able to tolerate anxiety when you used your compassionate self to help you? Remember, every time you make this compassionate and courageous effort to cope with frightening thoughts, you’re strengthening your connection to your compassionate self.
At his upcoming 8-session webinar series, Dennis Tirch, PhD, will explore how the science of compassion can be used to enhance and expand clinical work.