Reducing Anxiety Through “Staying Present”

In my last post I spoke about my recovery from depersonalization and what a difficult journey that has been. One of the problems I have — and this was diagnosed years ago as well — is my mind often is full of random information, so whereas you may see a rose and think, “Wow, that’s a beautiful rose”, my mind starts going through different random thought-pathways like, “What type of rose is that?” and “If the wind were to blow really hard all the sudden, what would happen to that rose?” and “How difficult would it be to grow that rose at home?” and then those thoughts take on several thought-pathways of their own, and soon, my mind is super-busy processing a million different thoughts.  The thoughts unfold like a flower blooming.

A huge side-effect of this is anxiety, and that anxiety draws me out of the present. My mind is so flat-out thinking about various different things that, well, I’m not stopping and smelling the roses! This has contributed somewhat to the depersonalization that I have faced and am recovering from, but as I now know, this way of thinking has been present with me for a very, very long time — if not most of my life — and it is a habit I need to break, or at least rein in.

I remember back in high school, when I was on the swim team. I usually swam 100 yards freestyle, 100 yards backstroke, and sometimes the 100 yards or 200 yards individual medley. Once in a while, I’d also swim on a 400 (4 by 100 yard) yard freestyle or medley relay as well.

One of our swim coaches suggested to me that I try swimming the 500 yards freestyle, and I honestly had never thought of doing that before. Well, all I ever thought was, “Man, that’s a long distance to swim” and “Wow, I couldn’t think of anything more boring to do.” But I liked the challenge and started training for it.

Slowing down was a big key, as was pacing myself. This wasn’t a fast race like the 50 yards freestyle, or even a moderate race like the 100 yards freestyle. No, this was 20 lengths of the pool, and in order to not run out of energy or burn out too quickly or even finish last, I had to learn to pace myself and make small adjustments as I went along.

This, in itself, was a challenge, but it was a fun challenge. I found, even when swimming in a race, all the anxiety, all the worries, all the stress, all that faded away as I merely went through the motions. Underwater, there were very few sounds, and my mind could empty and a serene calm would come over me. It was merely, “Left, right, left, right, breathe. Left, right, left, right, breathe.” Even thinking about it now relaxes me and takes me to a place where anxiety and fear are replaced with this deep calm.

So, in counseling, we’ve been exploring focusing and “staying present”. My counselor talks about focusing on my breathing, slowing it, feeling the air come in and out of my lungs. No analysing it, no thoughts, just focusing on the breathing. When a thought or seven comes along — and they usually try to mob me when we start out — I need to push them aside and pay attention.

In this exercise, I’ve found a very specific image that comes to mind. It’s a pond with cat tails and long grass surrounding it. The sky is on the edge of the end of sunset, and it’s a still summer’s evening. The water barely moves or ripples, and there is darkness in its depths. When I delve deeper into this image, while I’m concentrating on my breathing, I find that the surface is what I present to other people. Under the water, there’s this stirring, this turbulence: sometimes slow moving like the Mississippi River on a lazy warm summer’s day and sometimes churning like the same river after an extended downpour in the spring. This turbulence is the jumble of emotions, often conflicting, like an undertow beneath the still surface.

At the bottom of that turbulent layer, there are primal emotions. Fear. Anger. Rage. Sadness. Grief. Strong emotions that stir both numbness in me and scare me as well.

But, interestingly enough, when I keep concentrating on my breathing, in and out, in and out, there’s a bottom beyond that layer: an overwhelming calmness. A peace and serenity that I can only describe in Robert Frost’s words from his poem “Directive” of “being whole beyond confusion”. And that place is the place that anchors me and helps me stay present.

My brother Brian and I also have been talking about anxiety and stress, and the best ways to overcome that. When I was suffering from panic attacks quite frequently in the early 2000s, I learned to meditate by focusing on a candle and pushing the thoughts out of my mind so I could relax. This worked a great deal then, but now, with the difficulty in focusing like that (plus earthquakes and an open flame are probably not the best combination), self-guided meditation hasn’t worked. But Brian recommended an app for my iPhone called Calm, which, interestingly enough, is very similar to the techniques and guidance my counselor has given me. (I think a counselor is a lot more helpful, but if you can’t afford to go to a counselor, or when your counselor is not around, Calm is a very good substitute.)  With a voice to guide me along, it helps free that rational part of my mind trying to be the voice, and I can devote more energy to the meditation and keeping my thoughts at bay.

We all suffer from stress and anxiety in various shapes and forms, but I highly recommend finding a quiet place in a comfortable chair or couch and trying this method. Plant your feet firmly on the floor, sit up straight but comfortably so, and focus on your breathing while slowing it down. Ignore your thoughts and keep concentrating on the breathing, and you’ll feel that calm come. It doesn’t always happen overnight, and I admit that I sometimes am too wound up to fully get to that bottom layer (the overwhelming calmness) in every session, but even slowing your breathing can help bring some relief from stress and anxiety.

It is then that you truly are present.