Anxiety can be viewed in many ways. Psychologically, it is a state of nonproductive worry, fear, stress, and/or panic. Physically, we experience tension, headaches, sleeplessness, restlessness, racing heartbeat, distraction, and difficulty thinking clearly. Neurobiologically, stress chemicals and hormones flood our system in a dysregulated manner; for various reasons, our bodies are not able to process them normally. The nervous system is out of balance, and neural pathways are developing into “grooves” that reinforce our anxious state rather than a state of equilibrium. Anxiety becomes our “new normal” after a while.
Spiritually speaking, we could say that anxiety arises from unfulfilled needs, and becomes the manner in which needs are met. Anxiety becomes a substitute for the actual nourishment and attention that we require in order to thrive. If we practice self-care and coping strategies, we gradually tip back toward our capacity to receive what truly feeds our souls, allowing us to release our chronically anxious state.
It can be challenging to move from an anxious experience to a state of calm, relaxation, or active engagement, but everything is workable. Myriad strategies for working with an anxious state are available. Practicing daily builds confidence and competence in unraveling anxiety and replacing it with (you fill in the blank).
Moments of relief are always available to us. No feeling is as solid and permanent as we think. If we tried to be only anxious for a solid hour, we would fail. It can’t be done. (If it could be done, then meditation would be a snap.) There are always gaps in our experience of anxiety or any other pain. When we focus only on the anxiety, we reinforce our experience that anxiety is solid. When we look for the gaps, we find moments of space, of relief, of other-than-pain. If we pay attention to those gaps, we can begin to enlarge them and string them together, integrating them into our awareness.
Being specific about what we are actually experiencing helps. If we say, “Oh, I’m anxious,” then we go straight into our response/reaction state. If we take it apart and say, “Oh, I am feeling tension in my neck and my stomach,” or, “Oh, my heart is beating fast and I am very aware of it,” or, “Oh, I am having many thoughts in rapid succession,” or, “Oh, I am really wishing this was not happening,” we begin to break it down into manageable chunks. We start to become realistic. (Anxiety is all about the unrealistic masquerading as the most important reality ever.) If we notice that we are “horriblizing,” we can bring curiosity to the moment rather than buying into the content of our thoughts. What is actually happening here and now? We are less likely to get trapped in anxiety this way.
My favorite bumper sticker says, “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”. It is completely natural for humans to constantly create stories in order to make sense of their experience. Trouble arises when we don’t recognize our stories as stories, and start to buy into what we think. When we feel anxious, we are even more likely to cling to stories as a way of comforting ourselves.
We are not accurate in our stories, so why behave as if we are? We cannot read minds. We do not know what other people think about us, or whether they think about us at all. We are not willing to check out our assumptions—“Excuse me, but are you judging me based on my appearance?”—because we are more attached to our fictions than to finding out the truth. This is the power of anxiety: its reliance on falsehoods. Noticing and acknowledging to ourselves that we are making stuff up helps to siphon off anxiety’s power. Present-moment awareness helps us recognize and detach from our stories.
Even when our coping strategies don’t seem to be working, they add up over time. Anxiety is like a 10-pound rock on one side of the scale, and our coping strategies are like one-ounce pebbles. We have to keep adding pebbles, even if the rock doesn’t budge. At some point, the balance will shift. And sometimes the pebbles slide off a bit and we have to catch them and pile them back on. We can do this. Small, steady pebble piling works best. Big, sudden moves are anxiety-producing, and discouraging when they don’t work out. Gently, my dears.
Pebbles for working with anxiety include: breathing practices (in for four counts, hold for four, out for four, hold for four), moving our bodies (even a few jumping jacks help regulate our systems), reality checking (“What is actually happening in this moment, in my body, in my mind, in my surroundings?”), meditation, talking to friends, playing music, and writing in a journal (relieves the mind of the need to ruminate). You know others. Experiment. See what helps. Use at least one a day.
Beating yourself up for feeling anxious is not allowed. How would you talk to a friend or child who felt anxious, uncertain, or scared? Speak to yourself in that manner. If we can’t have the compassion for ourselves that we have for others, how can we live?
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