Our recent City Women event, “Surviving and Thriving Through Anxiety”, was led by Wai-Ling Bickerton, a Birmingham-based NHS clinical psychologist who also works in independent practice. Wai-Ling has doctorates both in cognitive neuropsychology and clinical psychology, as well as wide-ranging experience – from occupational therapist to court liaison officer, from housing project manager to university research fellow. She is a Christian, married with two children and she is a student of compassion, contemplation and connection, which she sees as foundational for life and wellbeing.
Anxiety is a fact of life and it can signal potential danger. Anxiety is not in itself a threat unless we persistently ignore it. However, anxiety is uncomfortable. So it’s a natural instinct to want to run away from it – but this can give rise to both physical and mental health issues.
So what’s the ABC of dealing constructively with anxiety?
A How do we ATTEND to ANXIETY
B in BODY & BRAIN activities & BEHAVIOURS
C to give us CONNECTION, COMPASSION & CHOICE?
We may experience physical signs of anxiety, from muscle tension – across our face, neck and hands or through our back, legs and feet – to sighing, from flushing to acid stomach, from bladder urgency to jelly legs. And we may find that our thinking is blocked – struggling to take in information or to get words out, or experiencing tunnel vision.
Can we notice our anxiety and use it as a gateway to discover who we really are, choosing to balance our brain activities as we respond?
- Our left brain is our “local processor” – it thinks in words and details, categorises and judges, narrows things down; it separates, focusing on “I am…”. The left brain is engaged with verbal chatter, calculating, analysing and predicting possibilities.
- Our right brain is our “global processor” – it embraces the big picture, noticing connections and subtlety, metaphor and paradox: it notices and connects, observing “we are…”. The right brain deals with the present tense and connects with nature, spirituality and others.
Psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist recognises the left brain as a good servant, while the right brain is the real master.
When we notice anxiety, it is helpful to balance our brain activity by attending to all brain processes:
- Utilising the right brain to connect with our body, our experiences, to expand our awareness to the bigger picture. As we notice what we can see, feel and hear, it is helpful to first attend to all experiences in the moment without judgement. As the awareness expands, the scenery gets calmer – allowing more freedom and more possibilities to emerge; then
- Handing it back to our left brain process, to focus on deciding what to do now. At this point, we are more able to choose what is important, using words and thinking and fixing to move things forwards.
Can we avoid an “autopilot rejection” of anxiety, making space to get to know our own anxiety, without rejecting or judging it? When we notice anxiety, it may be helpful simply to notice where in the body we feel uncomfortable, right now and to place our hands there, feeling the kindness and allowing this simple act of connection to release helpful brain chemicals: kindness gives attention to ourselves and others.
If we can follow the rise and fall of our own anxiety, we may begin to notice emerging deeper and broader emotions underneath anxiety. When we notice our brain going at 100mph, we can use that as a cue to remind us to focus on slowing down and checking in with our body to regulate anxiety. Compassion is the antidote to anxiety. With patience and persistent practice, meeting anxiety with compassion, we can grow in confidence and courage to work with and through anxiety in a way that brings more freedom to our lives.
We finished our City Women meeting with the following words of blessing:
We pray blessing on one another and on the whole creation,
as we notice our anxiety and
acknowledge our responsibility
for the choices we make for ourselves,
for our community and for our planet.
Bless the Glasgow COP26 negotiators and world leaders,
in noticing and embracing the changes needed
for a sustainable way of life for all.
Bless each one of us
and bless our Birmingham business community
in noticing and embracing the changes needed
for sustainable work and life,
respecting ourselves, one another and our fragile planet.
We are deeply grateful to Wai-Ling Bickerton for leading us so wisely and sharing her insights so accessibly.
As always, if it would be helpful to meet 1:1 to discuss this or to reflect more generally, there’s an open invitation to do so. Just contact me, Sarah Thorpe, or on 0798 224 8949 and we can arrange a time to meet, online or in person.