Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Visualization and Feeling Your Feelings

I spent last evening at the hospital with my dad, which is why I didn’t post yesterday. Sorry for the delay--this one will be longer than usual to make up for my tardiness. Word to the wise: if you think you might be having a heart attack or someone else tells you that she thinks you might be having a heart attack, go to the emergency room. Don’t wait until you’re sure there’s “really” something wrong.

Visualization. The last relaxation technique that use to calm anxiety is similar to the meditation technique I wrote about last week. Take the same position as with meditation. Be comfortable, free of distractions, and hold an open body posture (palms upward and open). Close your eyes so you can focus on your visualization. Choose a place (real or imagined) or a time in your life when you felt absolutely free, joyful and optimistic about the world/life/yourself/other people. Really get to know this place and time. Explore it with each of your senses and be as specific as you can. Look around in your mind’s eye. What do you see? Are there objects there that you didn’t notice at first? Do any of these objects make noises, like a bird singing or the ocean roaring? Be very still and listen to the sounds. What are the layers of sound you hear? What do you smell? Freshly cut grass? Baking bread? Breathe in deeply. What do those smells remind you of? Touch the objects in your visualization. How does the grass feel against your hand? How does the warm sand feel under your feet? Notice if the objects are rough or smooth, warm or cool, soft or sturdy. Let the objects tickle you, soothe you. Are there things to taste in your place of joy? Taste them. What do they taste like? Be as specific as you can.

The purpose of visualization is to give you a place to go in your mind when you are in stressful situations, a place that is peaceful and joyful to counteract the agitation and fear that you are feeling. The more you practice visualizing and the more specific you can be about your visualization, the easier it is to call up this place and have the thought of it automatically trigger a relaxation response in your body.

Feel Your Feelings. The automatic reaction to anxiety or panic, particularly in a social situation, is to fight the anxiety, to try to control it or to stuff it back down. But if the anxiety feels it is not being heard, it just gets louder. And you will feel more anxious, not less anxious. Use the relaxation techniques in this chapter and listen to the anxiety. What is it trying to tell you?

Sometimes you don’t have time to listen to the anxiety. You’ve got things you need to do. In those cases instead of fighting or exploring the anxiety, put it off. Tell the anxiety that you have scheduled a time later in the day for it to have its say. And then at seven o’clock (or whenever you scheduled your talk), sit down and think about what your anxiety is telling you, or write down what the anxiety is saying as if it were actually speaking.

Having anxiety talk to you sounds silly, but emotions like anxiety or anger or hurt are warning flags that something is going on that we aren’t paying enough attention to. Emotions aren’t particularly eloquent at first. What the hell does it mean that you get angry every time your boss walks by your office when you get along with her perfectly well? You’ve got to talk to your emotion to find out.

Your anxiety will have a lot of bullcrap to say. It will catastrophize situations. It will tell you that you’ll literally die if you try to talk to that intriguing stranger at a party. It will tell you that you’re a hopeless idiot who will only humiliate yourself if you ask out a woman because, of course, she will reject you and everyone will hear about it and no one will have any respect for you any more.

But once you get past the bullcrap, your anxiety will also make some good points. It might tell you that you left the stove on--and you really did. Its message might be that you don’t really like hanging out at bars. So why the hell are you trying to meet women in a bar if you hate it?

Your anxiety might also be telling you that you are pushing yourself into a social situation you aren’t ready for. You say to yourself “Well, any normal guy would be ready for this. I’m being childish.” But your anxiety says “You don’t know how to handle talking to a woman without your friend with you to introduce you and smooth over conversational gaps.” You might not like what your anxiety is saying. But it may be right.

And if it is right about you not being ready, how do you get ready?

Up next Tuesday: Practicing

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