No matter the root cause of anxiety, you know the symptoms: sleepless nights; that pit in your stomach; feelings of distress, frustration, and self-doubt.
You might think that the anxiety cycle begins with an anxious or negative thought or comment, but that is not necessarily the case. They cycle starts when you hold back the inner movement of your emotions, which keeps you locked in your brain. Have you ever been around someone who says it like it is? Maybe you were thinking something negative and that person called out, “This sucks!” Perhaps that made you feel relief, like you were not alone. This relief came because calling out discomfort or a negative experience externalizes (even if only temporarily) what you may be feeling.
Since anxiety is so thought-provoking—meaning it’s hard to get your mind to stop chattering—it makes sense that you might see your thoughts as the root of a problem. The reality is, worrisome thoughts can happen only when your body is restricting the inner movement of energy. Since your emotions and physiological reactions to them are made of energy (molecules and atoms in motion), this means when you avoid or hold back on allowing your emotions to circulate throughout your body (e.g. , constricting them to your head or shoulders or chest), you increase the likelihood of fearful or negative thoughts arising and lingering, which continues the anxiety cycle.
Constricting emotions also uses up some of your mental energy. You most likely experience this as distractibility. The anxiety cycle forces energy loss and as you sense that, your symptoms likely increase. Now you’re fully in the cycle, and you have to cope with those symptoms. Once you understand that emotions get processed in the body, this will change.
Here’s another way to think about it: When you eat a piece of food, your body naturally breaks it down, absorbing what you need and getting rid of the rest. When it comes to processing your emotions, especially anxiety, instead of breaking them down, you are breaking free from the ways in which you have been controlling your emotions.
Most of us have learned to view this as an active process, meaning you attempt to label or figure out what and why you are feeling the way you are, before you allow it to be digested. However, I’ve found processing your emotions is an experience, not an action.
Just as you might experience the incredible taste of chocolate, digesting your emotions happens when you are in a state of non-effort. You don’t try to experience the taste of chocolate, and you don’t try to digest emotions; you allow yourself the experience. In my practice, I’ve learned that as the experience of processing an emotion unfolds, four key elements are required: oxygen, awareness, observation, and free will.
Here, how to start an anxiety detox today:
Oxygen: Trust Your Breath
Oxygen is the driving force behind how your emotions are circulated, moved, recycled, and digested in your body. When it comes to processing your emotions, how you bring oxygen into your body really makes a difference. During an emotional detox, you will bring oxygen into your body through your nose (not your mouth).
Your emotions move through a process similar to the one food goes through—only instead of the amino acids and simple sugars that digest food, your emotions are digested by activating nerve channels called meridians. One of the ways to access these meridians is nostril breathing—inhaling and exhaling through your nose—like this:
- Inhale through your nose for a count of three: one, two, three.
- Exhale through your nose: three, two, one.
Did you notice an energetic shift when you did the simple nostril breathing? The process of inhaling—how you bring oxygen into your body—is vitally important to your physical and emotional health.
To digest your emotions fully and properly, you have to become aware of how they are experienced in your body. This means that you notice how your emotions show up in your body. Most often this happens through sensations. Your emotions can be experienced as:
- Tension or tightness
- Goose bumps
Observe and Witness
While awareness is noticing, observation is the skill of witnessing. Many meditation techniques are based on learning and understanding the art of observing. According to the theory of the observer
effect, simply observing a situation changes it. In an emotional detox, observing your emotions changes your experience. In other words, the emotions you once called guilt, fear, or anger now change frequency, shape, form, and movement, giving you a new and lighter interpretation that resembles joy.
To be clear, witnessing the awareness (sensations) of your emotions is different than watching. When you watch something, you are more likely to think. For example, if you are told to watch your breath, you are more likely to think about whether you are breathing “right” or “wrong.” On the other hand, when you witness your breath, you are less engaged from your brain. While watching may be great if you are a security guard or a mom looking after small children, it won’t serve you during your anxiety detox.
Here is the thing: Your body is always looking to go back to a place of balance and ease. There is nothing for you to do—noticing the difference between watching and witnessing is enough.
Watching vs. Witnessing
- Protecting, closed off, suspicious
- Thinking or interpreting what you see
- Being on guard
- Interacting with or attaching to thoughts
Contracting your energy (holding in, resisting)
- Detachment from thoughts
- Observing without making meaning
- Open, curious, interested
- Expanding (allowing, opening)
Now let’s apply your understanding of watching versus witnessing to the process of finding balance and ease in your body.
Finding Balance and Ease
- Take a moment to become aware of the sensations in your body. To do this, pause, uncross your legs, soften your gaze, and rest your attention on your breathing.
- Notice if attending to yourself in this way makes you feel upset or bothered. You might get fidgety or your heart may speed up. If so, you are probably watching or trying too hard.
- You can help yourself transition from watching to witnessing by stating aloud the word “witness” and then breathing in and out through your nose.
- Say the word aloud a few more times, gently speaking directly to your body: “witness” (inhale, exhale), “witness” (inhale, exhale). Keep your chin parallel to the floor and your gaze soft (looking down or along the horizon).
- Give your body some time to adjust and align with this word. It will get there, but it might not happen immediately.
Choose to Heal
Free will matters. You can get a million healing treatments, spend your money on all sorts of modalities, accumulate a bunch of tools meant to help you overcome anxiety—but until you choose to heal, you may find the results you get are short-lived.
Free will means choice, and in the case of an anxiety detox, you are choosing whether to heal or to revisit old patterns. You are also choosing whether you pay attention to thoughts or to feelings. If you are struggling with symptoms of anxiety, it is likely you have been giving your thoughts an excess of attention. What starts out as one thought ends up being a slew of mindless chatter. These types of thoughts and your reactions to them could cause you to really believe things were out of control. However, what is really happening is that you have undermined the power of your own free will. Your free will is your light! The detox process helps you reclaim it.
Adapted from Emotional Detox for Anxiety by Sherianna Boyle. Copyright © 2019 by Sherianna Boyle. Used with permission of the publisher, Adams Media, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.
SHERIANNA BOYLE, MED, CAGS, is an adjunct psychology professor, author of eight books including Emotional Detox for Anxiety, and founder of Emotional Detox Coaching, C.L.E.A.N.S.E. Method, and C.L.E.A.N.S.E. Yoga. In her book Emotional Detox for Anxiety, she shares seven steps to help you learn to experience and digest your emotions, also called the C.L.E.A.N.S.E. method. These steps will help you release anxiety and negative feelings, clearing a path to peace, acceptance, and pure joy. Sherianna provides Emotional Detox workshops through renowned centers such as Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health and 1440 Multiversity. Find her Emotional Detox podcast, workshops, and services at sheriannaboyle.com.