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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jonathan Hoffman

Is Being Centered Helpful for Managing Anxiety?

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

Although definitions vary, being centered seems to involve finding that place inside yourself where you feel most present, calm, authentic, grounded to the Earth, or in touch with your inner self or spirit; a restorative, safe space that you can retreat to in times of distress, which gives you room to collect yourself, and start anew when you’re ready.

Sounds like the go-to place for anyone impacted by anxiety. But, is it really?

Utilizing being centered as a technique to dispel anxiety implicitly suggests that anxiety is an emotion that needs to be escaped. This contradicts the very well-established concept that anxiety is a false alarm, a misfiring of the fight or flight system in which physical sensations are misinterpreted as threatening, giving rise to negative cognitions, hypervigilance, and avoidance behaviors.

Avoidance behaviors are mental and physical maneuvers used to escape or mitigate anxiety. This includes the use of safety cues, for example, sitting in an aisle seat, carrying a water bottle everywhere, or keeping an anti-anxiety or diarrhea pill wrapped up in a tissue in your pocket. Avoidance behaviors heighten the probability that anxiety will generalize and increase over time.

Hence, the conventional wisdom of taking deep calming breaths to relieve anxiety is also questionable, since if nothing truly threatening is occurring, taking any evasive action is completely unwarranted. You may be wondering if from this perspective being centered might be conceptualized as an anxiety avoidance behavior. Bingo!

Based on the false alarm model, effective strategies for managing anxiety focus on exposures to feared stimuli while inhibiting avoidance behaviors. The deliberate provocation of uncomfortable internal sensations like a racing heartbeat, dizziness, or hyperventilating is called interoceptive exposure.

Exposures to external anxiety triggers might be anything from letting an insect that makes your skin crawl actually, well, crawl up your arm to shopping in a store you haven’t ventured into since you had a panic attack there last year. This form of treatment can be challenging and requires courage and commitment. By definition anxiety is always a false alarm, however, it sure can be a very compelling and distressing one!

Exposure therapy has been found to be effective for many types of anxiety, including generalized anxiety, panic, phobias, social anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This treatment is tailored for each person and the type(s) of anxiety they experience. Exposures are not forced upon anyone, the client is always in control of the process, which can be done as gradually as necessary.

Next point: How can anyone possibly tell if they are being centered, anyway? Actually, you can’t, it’s completely subjective. This makes being centered of limited utility as a metric of progress in managing anxiety, unlike a more objective measure such as decreasing a specific anxiety-related avoidance behavior, such as not speaking up when you really want to at a zoom meeting.

Hmm, if being centered becomes an anxious person’s safe space, doesn’t that increase the chances, ironically, that feeling uncentered might turn into yet another anxiety trigger? Yep. And, if this has happened, would practicing feeling as uncentered as possible be the ticket? You got it!

Finally, anxious people may be understandably attracted to approaches like being centered because they really can provide relief--unfortunately, it’s very likely to be fleeting and illusory.

Next time you feel anxiously uncentered, remember, it is a false alarm. Stay right where you are!

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