This blog was featured on 03/13/2020
Navigating Anxiety
Contributor

​In my memoir, Raw: My Journey from Anxiety to Joy, I share how an anxiety disorder hijacked my life for a few onerous years. Anxiety showed up as an enemy but eventually became a valuable teacher. Anxiety still educates me, and in light of the Coronavirus, and for those kindred spirit writers whose personalities also lean toward worry and fear, I thought I’d share a few thoughts.

Although we can’t eliminate anxiety completely (it’s a normal human emotion), we can get relief by understanding how it works and change our relationship to it. Learning how to observe and be gentle with our feelings (rather than being victimized by them) can make the difference between panic and clear-headed, open-hearted repose.
 
 
Mind/Body Connection
 
Anxiety comes from fearful thinking, but it shows up in the body in diverse ways. Here are some common physical symptoms: shortness of breath, chest pressure, pounding heart, feeling like you have ice in your veins, sweating, heat flashes, jitters, dizziness, stomachaches, muscle tension, dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Oftentimes these physical symptoms create more fearful thoughts, which thrust an already busy mind into overdrive, spewing scary stories. 
 
Assuming your physical symptoms stem from anxiety (and not medical issues), Leave your thinking alone. Drop down into your body. This may be frightening, because if you’re like me, you won’t want to feel unpleasant sensations. You’ll probably brace yourself against them. But resisting (and ruminating over) symptoms escalates anxiety. Fighting makes it worse; you have to lean in, let go, and accept. It’s counterintuitive, but this releases anxiety’s grip.
 
 
Self-Compassion and Direct Experience
 
Don’t judge yourself for being anxious. I still do this sometimes. I think I shouldn’t have anxiety. I think I should know better. I’m educated. I know how it works—hell, I wrote a book on the subject, plus I’m spiritual! But none of that matters because I’m also human, and as author Sydney Banks once said, “Life is a contact sport.” He also said that if the only things humans learned was not to be afraid of their own experience that would be enough. 
 
Don’t try to figure anxiety out with questions like, “Why am I feeling this?” That drags the agitated mind back to center stage. Like I said above, leave your thinking alone. One way to do this is to connect with your direct experience. Your direct experience is what’s going on in the moment. The mind is not your direct experience; it’s inner commentary on your direct experienceWhen you distance yourself from that commentary and let yourself feel what you feel, your symptoms ease. 
 
Get Visceral. If you’re sitting, feel the seat brace you. If you’re in bed, experience the mattress as a source of support. If you’re walking or standing, feel your feet on the ground and think of that surface holding you. Tune in to your senses. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? 
 
You Are Not Your Anxiety. Even those of us who have developed anxious personality structures can learn to relax these conditioned thought patters and access our inner calm. We all possess fundamental wisdom and goodness and have the capacity to be kind toward ourselves and others. When anxiety kicks in I do my best to let it be okay, not to beat myself up, and to connect with the part of me that is designed to adapt, respond, change, and evolve. 
 
 
Distraction and Ego Relaxation
 
When anxiety feels overwhelming (when the mind will not yield) and you can’t drop down underneath all your thinking (like diving under a wave in the ocean), attempt a pivot. Distraction is a valid tool. I love to dance or walk and soak up as much beauty as possible—from the sky, flowers, trees, and faces of people I pass in the street. I remind myself to stay present, to feel my feet on the ground. 
 
Another relief strategy is to reach for positive thoughts. If that doesn’t work, it might help to occupy your mind by reading, writing, listening to music, drawing, knitting, connecting virtually with a friend, or watching TV or movies. Even cleaning can be a good diversion.
 
Remember that you’re not alone. We are all in this together and we are supported in large and small ways (by people and things), and we’re connected to everyone on the planet. 
 
I’m taking a course on “ego relaxation” with spiritual teacher Miranda Macpherson, who posed this question in a recent class: “What’s it like if you soften, open, and allow things to be as they are?” 
 
When it comes to anxiety, the answer is simple: when I soften, open, and allow things to be what they are, I begin to relax and feel spacious inside. I begin to connect to that part of me that is sensible and wise, and trust that even when the world appears to be coming apart at the seams, there is still so much to enjoy and be grateful for. This soothes me and inspires me to look for silver linings. 
 
I’ve started a silver linings list, which I’m keeping on my desktop to remind me to be grateful for what’s good. So far my silver linings are: having our daughter home, my family is healthy, life has slowed down, I’m reading more, I’m spending less money, I’m noticing small beauties on my daily walks, enjoying simple pleasures like a hot shower and home-cooked meals, feeling grateful for my husband and expressing my appreciation to him often, and a friend recently reminded me that our environment is getting a much-needed break from fossil fuels.
 
But mainly, this situation reminds me to keep turning in the direction of love, inner peace, hope, and helpfulness.
 
Learning to settle my mind and sink into my direct experience while remaining open to my deep, authentic nature (which is loving and not fearful) and accepting things as they are has been healing
 
Discovering how to lie back, relax, and enjoy the ride in life—especially during challenging times—makes us more clear-headed, compassionate, and alive. Plus, relaxing the ego is good for your immune system!
 
Lately I’ve been thinking of the famous World War II poster slogan (often attributed to Winston Churchill): “Keep calm and carry on!” I also hear my mom’s voice whispering, “This too shall pass,” and, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” 
 
I wonder what good will come of our challenges, and how might they morph, like my anxiety disorder did, from enemy into valuable teacher. What will we learn? What have you already learned? What's on your silver lining list? I’d love to hear from you.

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Comments
  • Love this quote "Your direct experience is what’s going on in the moment. The mind is not your direct experience; it’s inner commentary on your direct experience. " Wow!

  • Cindy Bahl Writing

    This is fantastic. I call my anxiety my evil twin sister. She's been with me since I was eight years old. What you've said, some of your points, are right on target. For example, do not try to figure it out. This is the way of madness and can lead to a mild form of OCD (at least for me). Thank you for such an informative and helpful article. Much appreciated.