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Ep #91: Anxiety

Have you ever experienced anxiety that feels so intense you’re certain something terrible is going to happen? Do you experience that anxiety around alcohol and taking a break from drinking?

All humans feel anxiety at some time or another but it’s how we understand it and respond to it that makes all the difference.

Join me today as I break down where anxiety comes from and what you’re probably doing in response to it that is keeping you from seeing it clearly. I’m also sharing a step-by-step process you can use to work through anxiety when it shows up!

Visit www.rachelhart.com/urge to find out how to claim your free meditations, plus a brand new workbook that will teach you a different way to respond to the urge to drink.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • What creates feelings of anxiety and unease.
  • Why it’s important to remember the distinction between “predisposed” and “predetermined.”
  • How anxiety used to be a useful tool for humans.
  • Why anxiety is not a problem.
  • The three responses we usually have to anxiety.
  • A step-by-step process for handling anxiety.

Featured on the Show:

  • Join my FREE webinar on October 21 How to Feel at Ease When You’re Not Drinking: 3 Secrets to be Calm, Confident, and Have Fun!
  • Visit www.rachelhart.com/urge to find out how to claim your free Urge meditations and brand new workbook.

Listen to the Full Episode:

Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Take A Break podcast with Rachel Hart, episode 91.

Welcome to the Take A Break podcast with Rachel Hart. If you are an alcoholic or an addict, this is not the show for you, but if you are someone who has a highly functioning life, doing very well, but just drinking a bit too much and wants to take a break, then welcome to the show. Let’s get started.

Hey everybody. Look, before we get started today, I want to mention that later this month, I’m going to be doing a live version of the six-week solution. This is a course that I put together that has all my best coaching material to help you take a break from drinking that is completely unlike any other break you have taken before. It’s not about willpower, it’s not about just saying no. It is about really understanding what is behind the habit.

And I’ll tell you, right now the course has only been a self-study option and I have just loved hearing from people since launching it about how it has been incredibly transformative, and I am so excited to do a live version where I can interact with you guys, I can answer your questions, I can give you live coaching.

So if you’re interested, make sure that you head on over to rachelhart.com/live. You can sign up there and be the first to know when we release the details about how you can participate.

Alright, so today we’re talking about anxiety. Isn’t that great? Anxiety. You feel it, I feel it, everybody feels anxiety sometimes. Anxiety is just the feeling of unease about an anticipated event. That definition’s really important. I want you to think about the last time you felt anxious. Maybe you were headed out on a date, maybe you were going to a doctor’s appointment, starting a new job, giving a presentation, thinking about the future.

I know that I have been anxious at times about all of those things. What happens is that we feel anxious before something has happened, when we are contemplating in our mind what we think the outcome is going to be. And guess what? We’re thinking of a negative outcome. That’s why we’re feeling unease.

So anxiety, you can think about it as an emotion about the future created by our negative thinking. It’s not created by the date, or the doctor’s appointment, or the new job, or the presentation, or your future. Those things are not inherently anxiety-producing. Otherwise, everyone in the world would feel anxious about these things.

The reason that you feel this unease about an anticipated event is because of what you are thinking about it. That is how the think-feel-act cycle works. And I’m going to tell you this: there’s a lot of anxiety around not drinking. Generally for people who have been drinking, right?

So you may have anxiety waiting for a drink. I remember having this back when I was drinking. I’d get to a restaurant with a friend and we’d sit down and I would already have been anticipating that drink before I got there. And then we placed the order and maybe the restaurant was busy and I was kind of like, “Okay, where’s our drink? Where’s my gin and tonic?”

I felt my body kind of in a rush. When’s it going to come? So you might have anxiety kind of anticipating, waiting for it and wondering where is it. You might have anxiety about whether or not to drink in a certain situation. Maybe you’ve experienced this, heading out to a party, you thought, “Oh, I’m not sure if I should drink or if I want to drink. Do I want to drink around these people? But what will happen?” Right?

And so the idea of whether or not to drink, all your thoughts around that can create anxiety. And you might have anxiety simply about saying no to a drink. And I see this with a lot of clients who are in the first stages of taking a break. They encounter the times when they have trained their brain to expect a reward, alcohol is a concentrated reward, and they’ve decided to take a break and suddenly they’re feeling really anxious and they don’t understand why.

And that’s what I want to explain to you guys today. What you need to know first is this: in all of these cases, your thoughts are creating anxiety. Your negative thoughts about the future, about an anticipated event, that is what is creating the feeling of unease.

Now, this is not how a lot of people think of anxiety. We perceive it as situations or events or things, we look to the circumstances of our world and think those are anxiety-producing. But it is not the circumstances, it’s not what is happening. It’s what you’re thinking about it.

Now, people will come to me and say, “Okay, but can’t someone have a baseline where maybe they are more anxious than another person?” And you know what, I’ll say the same thing about whether or not someone can have a baseline about desiring more alcohol or desiring more intense rewards than another person. Sure. Sure, that is possible. I’m sure that it can be proven that some people have a baseline or maybe they’re more anxious.

But – and this is a really important piece – there is a big difference between predisposed and predetermined. This is where I think a lot of people get hung up. Remember, predetermined means your fate is sealed. There’s no chance at changing. You are powerless to change. You are just always going to be an anxious person or you’re always going to be someone that desires alcohol a lot.

Predisposed is very different. Predisposed means yeah, you might have that baseline but your fate is not sealed. And that’s what the think-feel-act cycle teaches us, right? It teaches us the exact opposite. Not that our fate is sealed, not that we are powerless, but actually, that we are incredibly powerful when it comes to change. You can learn how the cycle works, how your thoughts create your feelings and those feelings drive how you act, you can learn how to manage your mind, and you can learn how to reduce your anxiety.

Now, anxiety is an emotion that served humans for a very long time, especially when we were evolving. Think about it. A long time ago, the world was an incredibly dangerous place. Survival was not a given. We needed to be on high alert to stay alive. And so contemplating a negative future, contemplating a negative outcome was actually helpful because every day your very basic choices had an immediate impact on your life.

What you ate, where you sought shelter, your ability to avoid predators. These all had an impact on survival. And so contemplating negative outcomes, anticipating a negative future, creating that anxious, that uneasy feeling was actually adaptive. Imagine if you were an early human walking around with no anxiety. Never anticipating danger, never thinking of a negative outcome. You would not have lasted long.

Anxiety helped humans. Now, here’s the problem. How much true danger are you in today in our modern world? In your daily life, how often is your survival truly threatened? Most of the anxiety that people suffer is not about life or death situations. It’s about the negative anticipation that we have created in our mind about dating, socializing, fear of the unknown, fear of other people’s judgment, fear of failing, and fear of not drinking.

It is the negative story of future events, and that is a story that you created, which is the good news. But no matter which way you look at it, none of those things I listed off are going to kill you. None of them are going to affect your survival. But your brain continues to be on high alert. It continues to think that anxiety is serving you and that it is helping you if you are looking around every corner assuming that there’s a tiger there.

Instead of what we should be doing when we feel anxious is it’s okay, this is a normal human emotion. I’m not going to die. But instead, our brains are often, oh my god, something has gone terribly wrong, I have to make it stop right away. Anxiety is a normal emotion and just like every emotion, it’s a sensation in your body. You feel it physically. The question I always ask people is like, okay, so how do you know when you’re feeling anxious? What signals do you have? How does your body tell you that?

And you can pay attention to your breathing, maybe it gets shallow, or your heart rate, maybe it speeds up. Maybe you notice your palms are sweaty or your temperature is rising or you feel tense in different areas of your body. All of these sensations, while they may not be your favorite, they are all survivable and in fact, very normal.

You may not like them, you may prefer to feel differently, but they are not an emergency. The truth is, in the modern world, the anxiety that we feel is usually not a sign to run, to take cover, or to fight. It is a sign to pay attention to the story that we are telling ourselves about the future.

Now, most people treat anxiety like it’s an emergency, like something has gone terribly wrong, like it needs to be immediately fixed, and so what do they do? They spend a lot of time in trying to erase anxiety from their lives, and you may have found yourself doing the same thing. The question is always how do I get rid of it, how do I get rid of it?

So we meditate and we do yoga and we change our diet and we take a bath and we get a massage. There’s a whole laundry list of things, and none of these things are bad. There’s nothing wrong with doing any of these things. But they are ignoring the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is this: anxiety is not a problem.

This really blew my mind when I figured this out. Anxiety is not a problem. It doesn’t need to be erased. You don’t have to get rid of it. It’s not a problem that needs to be immediately solved. It is a normal human emotion that used to serve us very well and now frankly, for most people, is kind of overactive.

The real problem is not anxiety but how you respond to anxiety. I want to say that again. The real problem is not anxiety but how you respond to anxiety. Now, you’ve heard me, if you’ve listened to the podcast before, you’ve heard me talk about the varying ways that you can respond to the urge or the desire to drink. You can react, which means you just go get the drink, you can resist that urge or that desire, which means really trying to use a lot of willpower to say no, you can distract yourself from how you’re feeling, trying to find things in your environment to cover up that desire, or you can observe it. You can observe the urge, you can observe the desire.

And what happens when you observe your desire is all of a sudden you have a very different relationship with it because instead of trying to solve it, you’re watching and you’re listening and you’re examining. You’re learning how to allow it and let it be there. And here’s the thing: the same is true, these four things that you can do with the urge or the desire to drink, react, resist, distract, or observe, you can also do with any emotion, including anxiety.

Now, what most of you are doing when you experience anxiety, and I know from firsthand experience, you are not observing. You’re not allowing it. You’re doing some version of the first three. Maybe you’re reacting to your anxiety so you’re freaking out and you’re really spinning on your story. You’re catastrophizing, you’re fixating on everything that may go wrong. That story kind of snowballs in your brain.

You might be resisting it. You might be using all your might to say I’m not anxious, I’m not anxious, I’m not anxious. Trying to really make it go away by pretending that it’s not there. You might be distracting yourself from anxiety. Finding something in your external environment to cover it up. And this is where alcohol or food or shopping or work all come in. I’ve talked about how we use these things to numb how we feel and numbing anxiety is incredibly common.

The problem is that all three of these responses, reacting, resisting, and distracting, actually make your anxiety worse because what you’re doing is layering anxiety on top of anxiety. That’s what you’re doing when you react. You’re magnifying that emotion. So you feel anxious, you’re anticipating a negative outcome, and then you start catastrophizing, right? Catastrophizing just means that you are thinking more and more and more negative thoughts. So you’re magnifying the emotion.

Or you’re resisting. And when you’re resisting, the same way when we resist the desire to drink, when you resist your anxiety, you can’t see the root cause of it. You can’t understand how the think-feel-act cycle is at play because you’re pretending it’s not there. You’re using all your might to kind of tense up and close your eyes and say no, no, no, go away. And if you can’t see what’s creating it in the first place, your only choice is to keep running from it.

And when you distract from your anxiety, when you try to find things to cover it up, to numb feeling anxious, guess what? Well, you generally will create a new set of problems for yourself. You’ll find yourself drinking too much, eating too much, shopping too much, working too much. All the things that we overdo in an attempt to cover up how we feel. Only observing anxiety, only looking at it, examining it, questioning it, essentially allowing it to be in our body because it is a normal human emotion will help you ultimately change it.

Now, I want to talk about where this comes into play when you take a break from drinking. Because remember, alcohol is a concentrated reward in the brain, and the brain was designed to seek out rewards in the environment. That is how our brain evolved. It helped us survive. To seek out things that rewarded our brain.

Now, when you take a break from drinking, your brain is still conditioned to expect alcohol. You taught it to expect alcohol in certain situations. I’ve talked before about cues. Cues are a signal that your brain uses to start the habit cycle. And they can be anything. A time of day, an event, an object, a smell, a sound, a person, an emotion. Really anything can be a cue once you teach your brain that when that happens, you give it a reward.

So the cue still exists. Your brain has still learned. It didn’t just erase all that memory that oh, when it’s 5pm, I get a drink. When I’m at dinner with my best friend, we order wine. But remember, your cues are not creating the desire or the urge to drink. It’s 5pm, your brain thinks automatically, unconsciously, probably you’re not even noticing it if you’re just starting out, “Oh, I deserve a treat. I had a long day.” So you feel desire.

That’s the think-feel-act cycle. You’re at dinner with a friend. She orders wine. Your brain thinks, “I want one too.” Desire. You’re feeling kind of bored and you have that thought, “Wine would make this better.” You feel desire. You’re at a party, you’re thinking to yourself, “I feel so uncomfortable right now, a drink would probably make this much more bearable.” Desire. You’re at the grocery store, see the wine display and you think, “Oh, my favorite bottle’s on sale, I should pick one up.” Desire. Maybe even you smell pizza and your brain thinks, “A beer would be really good right now.” Desire.

So how it has worked in the brain, you have these thoughts, the thoughts create desire and what you have been used to doing is then acting on that desire, having a drink and rewarding your brain. You do that enough, you repeat this think-feel-act cycle enough and you create a habit.

But now if you are taking a break, if you’re trying to change the habit, what happens? You still have all those cues, you still have all the thinking, so you’re still going to have desire. Now, what happens when the desire appears? What most of you are doing is resisting it. That is what I did for so long. The desire appears and we use willpower to try to resist it, make it go away. That struggle, that resisting, it creates anxiety. Because then we have a whole new set of thoughts about the fact that we have desire.

“Ugh, I hate this feeling, when will it go away? Am I always going to feel like I’m missing out? I’m never going to fit in. This is impossible.” We have all these thoughts about the desire, those thoughts are unease about the future. That creates anxiety on top of the desire we already have. When we resist that desire, that struggle creates a layer of anxiety.

Feel desire, resist, and the struggle against the desire creates anxiety. And then what do we want to do? Well, we don’t like feeling anxiety, so then we want to resist the anxiety. And the struggle against the anxiety creates more anxiety. Do you see where this is headed?

Now, there is a really big piece of the puzzle that I want to make sure that you understand. Because you can see how this cycle will just create more and more anxiety for you. But if in the moment, when you’re feeling the desire and then you start resisting it and through that resisting, through that struggle you create more anxiety, if in that moment you give in and you say yes, what you have done is this: not only have you solved your desire by having a drink, but you have also temporarily solved your anxiety with the reward of alcohol.

So what you have done in that moment is you have reinforced the idea that alcohol provides relief. Alcohol is the piece of the puzzle that kind of starts the chain reaction. So you have the thoughts about it, those thoughts create desire, you’re trying to change the habit, then you start resisting the desire instead of observing it. That resistance, all the thoughts that you have resisting the desire, they create anxiety and if you give in in that moment, what you have done is taught your brain that the way to solve desire and the way to solve anxiety is by drinking.

So alcohol becomes the problem and the solution. And this is where so many people get stuck. Now, you don’t need to erase anxiety from your life, especially if you’re trying to change the habit of drinking. Attempting to erase anxiety from your life is pretty much the same as attempting to just start out and erase desire from your life. Neither of these things are a problem. The problem is how you respond to them.

And when your response is to struggle against it, you will create more anxiety and that will cause more problems for you. Anxiety is uncomfortable, but it doesn’t mean that you’re in danger. It doesn’t mean that your survival is at threat. So I want you to ask yourself how anxiety appears in your life and how do you cope with it?

Because anxiety is one of the most common reasons that I hear from clients about why it’s hard to take a break from drinking, but also why it feels difficult to sit with their emotions. Alcohol can become the way that people unconsciously teach their brain to numb anxious thinking, to numb how they feel. And then when you take that away, then all of a sudden, you’re left not only with the anxiety but you’re left with all your other emotions.

So I want you to ask yourself, where does it appear in your life and how are you coping with it? My guess is that you are probably seeing it as a problem and your work is to start shifting your relationship with anxiety, to stop seeing it as a problem and instead, evaluate how you are responding to it. That really is the key.

So there’s a simple way to do it. The first step is really just to name the emotion. Don’t skip this. This is really important. Just name what is going on. I am feeling anxious, this is anxiety. Just that alone can slow down your habitual response to feeling this way. So name it first.

And then notice as a second step what you want to do to alleviate it. Where does your brain go? Do you want to react to it? Do you notice yourself wanting to spin on the story, catastrophize, really fixate on a whole list of things that might go wrong? Do you notice wanting to resist it? Trying to use all your might to make it go away, pretend it’s not there? Are you finding that you’re trying to distract from it? You’re looking for something to cover it up, you want a drink, something to eat, something to take your mind off of it, to shop, to just stay at work?

Where does your brain want to go when you notice anxiety? How does it want to alleviate it? This is a really important piece for you to understand. The third step is basically doing something completely different. Instead of reacting, resisting, or distracting, it’s your chance to practice observing and allowing it and notice I said practice because it will take practice. And the way you do that is instead of being in your head, instead of being with all your thoughts about anxiety, you have to go into your body. You have to look at those sensations.

What is your breathing doing? Your heart rate, your temperature, your muscles, how does it feel? Can you notice it without judgment? Can you notice these sensations and just observe them? Because when you really break it down to what anxiety is in your body and you say, well, I notice my breathing is shallow and my heart rate is faster and I feel kind of warm, all of a sudden when you describe these things in a non-judgmental way, you can really start to question, okay, well why am I doing anything and everything I can think of to avoid experiencing an increased heart rate or shallow breathing or a rise in temperature?

These sensations are all survivable. You may not like them. You may prefer to feel differently, but they are not an emergency. As a fourth step, once you have really observed and allowed the anxiety to be there, you can practice reminding yourself you’re safe, this is not a problem, you’re not in danger, anxiety pretends to be useful because it was very useful for humans but it’s not useful for you right now.

One of the things that I do is I like to remind myself oh, this is my brain trying to help me. This is my brain thinking that it’s doing me a favor when I feel anxious. Because it really was very helpful in the past. It really did help humans survive. And so I just remind myself, oh right, my brain was evolved to do this, it was evolved to spot danger in the environment. It was evolved to anticipate negative futures and negative outcomes. This is just my brain trying to help me, everything’s okay.

And then finally, once you have done all four of those steps, then you can ask yourself, okay, so why am I feeling anxious? And now, this is a big shift because remember, you are looking for the thought creating that unease, not the circumstance.

So when you’re headed out on a date, it’s the thought, “This is going to be terrible,” not the date itself. When you’re going to a doctor’s appointment, it’s the thought, “Something might really be wrong,” not the appointment that’s creating anxiety. Starting a new job, maybe it’s the thought, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to hack it,” not the job itself that’s making you feel anxious. Giving a presentation, maybe you’re thinking, “I’m going to make a fool of myself.” That thought creates anxiety, not the presentation.

And when it comes to the habit of drinking, if you’re feeling anxious around that, it’s not the habit itself. It’s not alcohol. It’s thoughts like, “I’m never going to be able to figure this out.” Your work is to find the thinking, not the circumstance. That is where most people are used to going, the thinking that is creating your anxiety.

And now listen, do not immediately attempt to try to swap in a positive thought. I see a lot of people do this. And all it really is is actually a lovely way of resisting. This idea, I’ll just think something positive. When you’re doing that, when you immediately try to swap in a positive thought, the reason why you’re doing that is because you don’t want to allow the anxiety.

Your real goal is to practice teaching your brain that anxiety is not an emergency. It’s not a sign that you’re in danger. You’re okay. You’re safe. You can observe and allow it. You can understand why you’re feeling it. You can see how the think-feel-act cycle is creating it. And I will promise you this: if you do this work, if you practice this, not only will it radically change your relationship to alcohol. It will radically change your life because so many people cite anxiety to me all the time for the reason that they are unhappy, the reason that they want to feel differently.

If you can start to change that, if you can start to see that anxiety is not something that has to be solved, you can actually coexist with it, guess what will happen? You’ll start experiencing less anxiety. You’ll start feeling empowered when it appears. You will know that you can manage your mind, you can manage the situation. You don’t have to immediately erase it, immediately fix it, or immediately solve it with a drink.

Alright, so I hope that you guys really take away from this how shifting your relationship makes all the difference. And listen, if you are interested in the live version of the six-week solution, make sure you head on over to rachelhart.com/live where you can get all the details about it. Alright guys, I will see you next week.

Hey guys, if you’re finding this podcast helpful, and I really hope you are, I would love if you would head on over to iTunes and leave a review. And as a special thank you, I’ve updated and expanded my free urge meditation giveaway. I’ve created two audio meditations plus a brand-new workbook that will teach you a different way to respond to the urge to drink. The meditations are super simple. All it takes is five minutes and a pair of headphones. And each one now comes with a follow-up exercise in the workbook to help you dig deeper and really retrain your brain when it comes to the habit of drinking. So after you leave a review on iTunes, all you need to do is head on over to rachelhart.com/urge, input your information, and I’ll make sure you get a copy of both meditations plus the workbook in your inbox.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Take A Break from Drinking. If you like what was offered in today’s show and want more, please come over to www.rachelhart.com where you can sign up for weekly updates to learn more about the tools that will help you take a break.

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This Post Has 2 Comments
  1. Hi Rachel

    Congratulations on your recent birth, motherhood is the best business in the world!!

    You ask for topics and although I haven’t listened to all episodes (yet) so I might find it, the ‘thought’ of needing a reward (glasses of wine) because I got through another hectic day, seems so unrealistic however I don’t know what to replace it with.

    I don’t want to replace my wine numbing reward with a sugary treat, another destructive habit or $ item, I just want to feel content. I need to rethink the reward aspect but I don’t know how.

    I podcast listener from Australia here.
    K

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