Anxiety is a heightened mental or emotional state of stress resulting from challenging conditions. However, events themselves are not intrinsically stressful. The same set of circumstances that produce smiles in some people generate fear and anxiety in others.  Anxiety and stress are caused by how we react to events.

Such diverse responses can be seen on the faces of those on a roller coaster as it descends into a deep dive.  The same is true for an invitation to attend a public reception of five hundred people. Some respond with an attitude of, “How wonderful! I will meet so many new people.” Others respond with, “How horrible! There is no way I’m going to get lost in such a crowd.” One person is excited while the other is stressed or anxious to the point of sweating just thinking about the event.  Both responses are reactions to a mental story, not the event. 

We often respond to events by generating anxiety. Unhelpful responses to stress take many forms. We may use intellectual analysis to dream up “what-if” situations. Projecting our fears based on what someone said is another typical response. Or, we may paint a story onto some common condition in our lives. Then we dwell in the emotions and anxiety about responding or dealing with the story we generated. 

Anxiety can be so disturbing it will disrupt daily routines and work habits. When stress is intense, methods that work best are often those not dependent upon more mental assessment or analysis. Dr. Pat Ogden developed such methods by combining somatic therapy techniques with attachment theory and cognitive applications. She founded the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute in 1981 to teach sensorimotor therapy. Adapted from Dr. Ogden’s principles of walking meditation, I share with my clients walking mindfully. 

When stress boils over into anxiety, it is possible to walk away.  Even in an intense work setting, a short walk done mindfully can provide a bit of relief. 

Mindful walking requires the mind to focus on all that is happening while walking. It demands walking with the body instead of all the blah, blah, blah. Although all the anxiety may not disappear, the intensity of it will lessen by forcing the thought processes to drop down into the body.  Sense everything around you, a foot touching the ground, a leg swinging out, hearing the sound of a door closing, a car horn. By placing attention on the sensation, one cannot stay fixated on feelings of anxiety nor past events that cause stress.

When anxiety starts the foot pumping or fingers tapping on the table, it is time to get up and use the simple instructions below. If at work it might be a walk to the water cooler or a break room.  If at home, it might be a walk around the block. If waiting for an appointment, it can be a short walk down and back in the hallway. Use the instructions below to take a mini-vacation from stress and anxiety.  

MINDFUL WALKING TIPS

Prepare to walk: 

  • Stand with shoulders back and head up. 
  • Look outward and lower the gaze. 
  • Breathe in and out, SLOWLY.
  • Align with gravity.
  • Distribute weight over both feet and relax. 
  • Bend knees slightly.

Walk at your own pace mindfully: 

  • Pick up one foot and stretch out the leg in front slightly. 
  • Place heel down and feel the heel touch the ground.
  • Continue shifting weight onto the foot by putting toes on the ground. 
  • Stand fully on the one foot, letting back heel start to rise.
  • Bring back leg forward and place heel down on the ground.
  • Continue walking with a relaxed gaze.
  • As thoughts arise, return focus to walking.

As you walk, notice sensations in the body. Notice where you are placing your weight? What do you feel when you walk? (internally and externally) What do you see, smell, or hear? Do you feel air moving on your skin from a fan or the wind?  Is there warmth on your face? As thoughts or emotions arise, notice the idea or feeling and then think, “I am walking.” Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the movement and sensations of your body. And, if a sensation is pleasing, remember to smile. The sun won’t mind.

  • By Carol O’Dowd, MPA, M.Div., MI, RP 

Woman Riding Horse

Fear Can Be An Obstacle or A Resource

Fear can be a destructive emotion when it causes us to freeze or get so flustered we feel lost. As Takehisa Kora explains it in his How to Live Well: Secrets of Using Neurosis, “If we do not accept things as they are, and if we try to rid ourselves of them, then our minds tend to stay with them.” Recognizing fear as an emotional energy pattern, we can use it as a motivating force instead of tying ourselves down with our own worries. Dr. Reo Leslie, LPC, LMFT, CACIII, RPT-S, DAACS, MAC, Executive Director, Colorado School for Family Therapy, taught me how cognitive behavioral techniques (CBT) can help motivate a shift away from attitudes and behaviors no longer serving our wellness.    

I learned how to ride the shifts in life during my teenage years from a powerful stallion named Tiger. After a traumatic event in my life, my parents sent me to my grandparents in Oklahoma who put me in a summer riding camp. When helping with prepping the horses and afternoon clean-up, I watched how some of the horses could sense fear in their riders. A stallion named Tiger was an expert at it. He seemed to buck those who were afraid just for fun. Most of the camp instructors were anxious around him and often refused to ride him.

Mount Your Fear

Yet, Tiger would let me ride him bareback. The instructors encouraged me to do so with hopes others would be riding him soon as well. One afternoon when I had him in a walk around the arena, I noticed the camp instructors had left a gate open. Clenching the rope reins in one hand and grabbing a bit of Tiger’s mane in the other, I leaned forward and whispered forcefully in his ear, “Let’s go! ”

Tiger’s ears shot straight up. Then with a slight jump and a loud neigh, Tiger took off through the gate at a full gallop. As we entered the nearby forest, my fear told me to keep my head next to his neck and below his ears. While racing through the trees, the branches snapped and the world became a blur. The yelling and screaming of the camp staff receded as we sped away. My fear of falling off caused me to use every nerve and muscle in my body to stay upright.

Enjoy the Ride

The intensity of the experience kept me focused on blending with the movement of his muscles. We were one being in motion. It was the ride of a lifetime. What it taught me was how fear, sometimes, can be a powerful tool for focusing our attention, keeping all the senses alert. Fear does not have to limit us or leave us feeling lost. Instead, when we listen to our fear carefully, its energy can be transformative, freeing, an inspiration. And sometimes, a wild ride!

Transforming fear into a positive force in your life can be exhilarating. Counseling can help you transcend fear and avoid some of those tree branches along the way.

  –  Carol