Love Your Anxiety (Or at least get to know it)
I know it sounds crazy to even imagine “loving” your anxiety. But one of the fundamental truths about being human is that we have emotions, including anxiety. What makes us human is that we also have the ability to make meaning of our experiences and that meaning-making is what turns a simple emotion into a recipe for disaster.
Anxiety is fear of a future negative outcome. Stress has to do with not wanting to be in the present that you find yourself in. We imagine that outcome over a range from slight discomfort to a major catastrophe.
Some amount of sympathetic nervous system activation (which causes stress and anxiety) is needed to keep us cautious and therefore keep us safe. But the anxious state is meant to be a short-term, action-inducing state. So when anxiety runs amok, our bodies suffer. There’s a fascinating book called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” that describes all the different body systems that are affected when stress hormones predominate in the body.
Stress and anxiety happen in the mind and the body. The mind has a random thought that we believe, and the body reacts with tension and often uncomfortable sensations in the gut or the chest. Tightness in the body often restricts breathing as well which can lead to a hold host of other sensations. All this discomfort creates a state of mind that is geared toward getting away from the discomfort at all costs, leading to smoking, drinking, overeating, yelling at your loved ones, etc. Too much anxiety can even lead to a crash, which then feels like depression.
So what’s the solution? Love your anxiety (ok, I know that’s not going to happen!). At the
very least, though, to change and anxious state we need to acknowledge and accept that it is happening. Anxiety is part of our self-protective capacity. It is an indicator of something that needs attention. It is a call to action.
What’s your anxious feeling telling you? Maybe it’s telling you you’re overworked and need a break? Maybe it’s telling you that you don’t feel safe or fulfilled in your current relationship or career? Or maybe it is telling you that you have some work to do on your self-confidence or ability to set boundaries? In order to figure out what it is telling us, we need to pause and listen while recognizing that the emotions don’t have to control us, we do have a choice about how to feel.
Some simple ways to work with an anxious mood in the moment:
- Allow it to be without judging it as “bad” or “wrong” or somehow a sign of your failure. The extra layer of “shoulding” just makes the anxiety worse.
- Be curious about what triggered the anxious state.
- Give your anxiety something to do. Anxiety often shows up in the body as a jittery feeling. This is excess energy in need of direction. So dance, shake, shimmy, walk, run, do some vigorous yoga. Get the energy out and then try to do something a bit more quieting.
- Notice the anxiety as body tension and let go of tension in the muscles. Tight shoulders? Let them drop. Tight jaw? Let it drop.
- Uncomfortable sensation in the belly? That might be just the result of the abdominal muscles tensing. You might take over the tension (tighten your ab muscles) and then stop tensing, allowing the muscles to let go.
- We humans seem to have a natural tendency to catastrophize. Maybe instead of catastrophising, ask yourself: “OK, it feels like everything could go wrong, and is there any way this could go right?”
- Pay attention to your exhales, even making them longer. Exhaling lowers your heartrate, which gets elevated during stress.
- Ask for help. Social interaction with a safe, supportive other is one of the ways that we humans calm down.
- Stay away from coffee – yep, coffee drinkers have been shown to have random spikes in their anxiety during the day.
- Look around your environment, recognizing that you’re physically safe and that there aren’t any threats in your immediate vicinity. You might notice and name 3 objects that you see, 2 sounds you hear, and one thing you feel with your sense of touch. or you might count all the objects you see of a certain color or shape. Anything that breaks up the circular or negative thought pattern that is making you anxious.
Of course there are many other ways to deal with anxiety, including lifestyle habits of getting enough sleep and exercise. Do you have a favorite? Share it with us!
So the holidays are here and maybe the stress is starting to settle in a little deeper. For me there is the hustle and bustle of the gift-buying and preparations and the general collective stress that sets in, there is the excitement and anticipation of the kids hoping for wonderful presents, the holiday lights and the darkness of winter and Nature’s stillness that underlies all of this activity. All this is available right now in this minute – all at the same time. So, since I get to choose where I place my focus, I choose to place it on the peace – the stillness and silence – and sometimes I’ll chose to focus on the excitement and anticipation.
Even though I’ve had a sense of this underlying peacefulness, to focus on it is a big departure for me this year. Usually I just get stressed worrying about travel plans, what to get for whom, whether the receivers of gifts would like their gifts, and on and on. This year, everybody gets tie-dye (my kids’ idea) and the kids and I are excited to get started on this make-at-home project. They’re already picking out which designs for whom and which colors. It’s fun. Hopefully people will appreciate their gifts, and the love with which they were made and offered. But none of us can control what others think or feel. All we can really control is that we do our best to love, we place our focus on what nurtures us and those around us, and we give ourselves a break, every so often, to check in with the peace that is always here.
Not sure how to check in? Try this: Notice that you have a body, and that your body is breathing. Begin to follow the flow of your breath. Notice that each time you inhale and exhale, the breath comes from stillness and goes back to stillness. You may also feel that it arises from silence and goes back to silence. Just notice the rising and falling of the breath, from stillness and back to stillness, from silence and back to silence. Now instead of focusing on the breath, focus on the stillness, or the silence. You might begin to feel that it is always there, and that your body begins to feel more peaceful as you focus your attention on the stillness or the silence – the peace that is always here. Doesn’t take long to check in, but it feels pretty good, and you can even do it in line at the mall!
I’m working on trying to be brief and use less words – let’s see how I do…
Last October I asked my Akashic Records how I could live from a place of deeper clarity. The answer was surprising: “Be willing to be wrong – about everything.” What?! I had to ask for clarification. The reply: “Being willing to be wrong doesn’t mean you are wrong. It means you give up the need to be right, which is holding you back. It means shaky ground… Release the need to be right.” All my life I’d seen knowledge as a reinforcer of my worth. Being wrong was to be avoided at all cost. But what the heck, I was intrigued. Besides, I could always go back to being right if it didn’t work out. What I got was a big surprise. As I let go of the need to be right, something shifted inside. It was like when you’ve eaten too much and then you loosen the button on your pants – relief! I understood it later as being freed from the constant effort to protect and reinforce my “I.”
Sutra II of the Yoga Sutras describe the five klesas as the sources of our discontent, the obstacles to freedom. The klesas are: avidya, or not knowing our true nature as beingness or oneness; asmita – identification as “I,” “me” or “my”; raga – desire for pleausre; dvesa – aversion or avoidance of pain; and abhinevesa – fear of death. When I first read this sutra and the notion of the identified “I” as being problematic, I thought that was ridiculous (those crazy cave-dwelling yogis – what would they know about real life?!). After all, who would I be without a sense of my own individuality? If I let go of that I’d be left with nothing – I wouldn’t exist! At the very least it seemed to me a prescription for mental instability. I didn’t realize that even that resistance was the manifestation of this “I.”
Dzigar Kongtrul in his book It’s Up to You suggests: “This mind that we identify as the self, which we could call ego-mind, controls everything we do. Yet it can’t actually be found – which is somewhat spooky, as if a ghost were managing our home.” Michael Stone in The Inner Tradition of Yoga describes asmita as a storyteller, and the stories as a rubber band ball, wrapped around and around with more and expanding preconceptions about ourselves. Even when these stories cause us suffering and separation, we still hold on because we identify them as who we are. A Course In Miracles Lesson 69 begins: “My grievances hide the light of the world in me. My grievances show me what is not there, and hide from me what I would see. Recognizing this, what do I want my grievances for? They keep me in darkness and hide the light…”
So last month when I decided it was okay to be me, I found she was very elusive – like mercury, hard to pin down. At the same time I found the klesas. Ah the humor of it all. It’s been fascinating – sometimes funny, and sometimes really unpleasant – to recognize the storyteller arising, especially when I’m wanting to be right, or in control. I often recognize my “I” when it is acting up as a shadow that when noticed and acknowledged, shifts slightly to the left to reveal a sliver of light behind. A long exhale follows, a tightness releases in my chest, and in that moment, I can allow.