You Are Not Your Anxiety
Anxiety is one of the most pervasive psychological issue of our time. It is estimated that 264 million people worldwide have an anxiety disorder. Fundamentally we all crave certainty, yet life can be uncertain, and we cannot predict the future. Anxiety is a response to an imagined, uncertain future. It is not simply fear-which is focused on a real and imminent threat-it is more like an underlying sense of dread-subtle but chronic. A never-ending loop of what-ifs. An incessant warning about potential danger that keeps us stuck and miserable-robbing us of precious time and energy-making it hard to do what matters most to us.
Anxiety is complex, as noted by Freud who said, “Anxiety is not a simple thing to grasp.” But you know it when you experience it. You know how it feels, what situations likely trigger it, and how debilitating it can be. I invite you to take a moment and reflect on your experience of anxiety with curiosity. How do you know you’re anxious when you’re feeling anxious? What do you notice happening INSIDE of you the moment that anxiety arises?
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Does your heart race? Is your breathing shallow? Does your chest tighten? Is there muscle pain or tension? Are you hot or cold? Do you experience tingling or dizziness? Do you feel queasy or nauseated? Is there a knot in your stomach? Do you feel an impending sense of doom? Are you shaky? Sweaty? How do you feel? Do you notice fear? Is it hard to concentrate? Are your thoughts racing? Are they tinged with doom and gloom?
How do you respond to anxiety? Notice what you say and do when it shows up.
The natural tendency when faced with a threat (real or imagined), is to escape-physically, mentally, and emotionally. This can look like avoidance, suppression, distraction, or denial. We demand relief from our nervous suffering-we don’t want it, we are unwilling to have it, and we WANT IT TO STOP! In other words, we struggle with it. And one sure-fire way to amplify distress is to fight with it, avoid it, or try to silence it.
So, what is the alternative to struggling with anxiety?
Learning to work with it.
This starts with reframing the experience of anxiety into a practical perspective:
- Thoughts-getting hooked by anxious or negative thoughts
- Feelings-experiencing intense/unpleasant physical sensations and difficult emotions
- Concentration difficulty- because we are caught up in thoughts and feelings about anxiety
- Behaviors-what we do to deal with anxiety (e.g., avoid, escape, distract).
Then, we turn toward it.
This involves resisting the urge to avoid or escape anxiety and cultivating a willingness to be with it- accepting it for what it is and nothing more. Learning to observe it mindfully- not judging it, trying to get rid of it, avoiding it, or resisting it-simply allowing it to be -accepting the experience of it. Aware of any thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and sensations that arise. Not identifying with them. Not saying, “I’m anxious”. Simply noticing the experience of anxiety and saying, “I’m having an experience of anxiety in this moment”, or “I’m noticing there is anxiety here”. Not getting hooked by ominous thoughts. Not trying to get rid of uncomfortable bodily sensations or difficult emotions. Not trying to fix anything. Just being in the present moment. With equanimity.
At first blush, turning towards anxiety may seem counterintuitive. After all, we want life to be as seamless and painless as possible. But turning towards our pain is ultimately liberating. Anxiety is a part of life. To live a full life and do what truly matters, one must be willing to be with what is- to notice one’s inner life of thoughts, sensations, and emotions, to feel-both what is pleasant and unpleasant. And to do so with and attitude of acceptance, curiosity, and compassion. With the awareness that whatever arises passes away. Knowing that anxiety does not define you. That you are more than your anxiety. That you can experience anxiety AND live the life you want.
But don’t take my word for it, you must experience it for yourself to truly understand it.