The other night, I started feeling particularly anxious. I found myself lost in my thoughts, feeling overwhelmed by the things I needed to accomplish the next day. And, honestly, it wasn’t helpful. Worrying about all I had to do wasn’t going make it any easier for me to get them done the next day. In fact, if I had allowed my anxiety to interrupt my sleep, I likely would have been less productive when I needed to be. I was feeding into my anxiety without any perceivable benefit.
If this sounds familiar to you—whether it’s with anxiety, sadness, frustration, anger, or any other emotion—there’s a reason. Because your brain is designed to make connections and link things together, it can work to reinforce (and even amplify) your experience of an emotion.
For example, once I start to feel anxious, my brain does a great job bringing in other anxious thoughts: “Will I have enough time to get everything done? Is my wife still upset about that disagreement we had yesterday? If so, how will I smooth things over?” And similar thoughts just keep coming. My brain will even start to look for new things to be anxious about: “My dog seems to be breathing fast – is that normal? Is she okay?”
Anxious thoughts reinforce the feeling of anxiety, and the anxiety evokes new anxious thoughts. It’s easy to feel stuck in this negative feedback loop. So, how do we begin to disrupt this pattern? While there are many ways to help yourself become unstuck, I want to share the one I used the other night to help me let go of my anxiety: using my senses.
When we get caught up in negative emotional loops, we begin to lose touch with what is actually true and real in the present moment. Focusing on what is literally there in the room with us can help us feel more grounded and help fend off thoughts that feed the emotions. We can do this by focusing our attention on one of the most basic building blocks of present-moment experience: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
When you’re noticing that your thoughts have begun to feed into a negative emotion you are experiencing, experiment with any combination of the following:
Sound: Next, pay attention to the sounds around you. The loudest sounds, if there are any, might be most obvious. Try to notice other sounds, such as the sound of your own breathing. Notice how sensations in your body change in response to different sounds.