What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling covering up something else we don’t want to feel, like fear or inadequacy. It rarely reflects directly on what’s actually happening, it’s often much fuzzier and more generalised, so you can’t really put your finger on it. It’s the well-practiced habit of disconnection from what is. It’s easier to be anxious than own up to feeling scared or small. Anxiety is not pleasant, but it’s familiar and in a way ‘safe’. If you’re in a situation you’re a bit worried or fearful about, like an exam, you might become anxious and say “Well I’m just an anxious person, I can’t help it” but instead you could choose to notice “Oh I’m distracting myself from feeling fear – I’m numbing out”.
I find it interesting that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s work describes the 5 stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance#1. Anxiety is a form of denial, the gate we must pass through to do the deeper work of healing. I regard the stages as applying to any grief in life, although her pioneering work most famously emerged in her book “On Death and Dying” in 1969. In fact, if we contemplate our death daily, as Buddhists do, it informs our approach to life and its challenges.
Anxiety stress response
Since anxiety is a stress response, it delivers a LOT of energy in to the body, which in caveman days had a clear purpose – to warn of a dangerous situation. These days this emotional charge is often the jitteriness that conveys our attention away from an unwelcome emotion. But as with any emotion, anxiety alone can’t hurt you. It’s just a sensation or vibration in the body. It’s a normal human emotion that you don’t need to judge or resist. Our reaction to anxiety is what exacerbates and prolongs it.
So, what’s the problem?
Even when we are using anxiety to mask something else that’s going on, it doesn’t have to be a problem. We can develop awareness, observe it and take responsibility for it without judgment. We can notice what we are thinking and how we are feeling, the sensations in our bodies. We can be the watcher, observing the anxiety as it arrives, goes through us and then leaves. We can acknowledge that we DO have control and that it won’t harm us. We can take charge and deliberately allow the feeling, have compassion for ourselves and notice that the anxiety is not WHO we are but what we are EXPERIENCING.
With practice we can learn what our anxiety triggers are in a very detailed and forensic way, and learn to sit with the emotion until it passes. Deep belly breathing often helps us with this, as does a practice like meditation or yoga. Focus on the exhale, which contains an element of letting go and know that anxiety can’t hurt you, it just feels uncomfortable.
The four ways of dealing with any emotion
Fight the feeling, which actually just strengthens and prolongs it and causes us additional stress
REACTAct out, e.g. lashing out when we are angry. This too may cause additional suffering
Use an external compulisve distraction to change our mood and feel a different emotion
Sit quietly and observe the emotion, allowing it to pass freely through the body
Common anxiety responses
With anxiety, because it’s a stress response, we tend to jump to a fight or flight response (‘React’). We React with defensive words and over-activity or we Distract. When we do this, anxiety continues to have power over us and mask our original emotion (e.g. Fear) and we may cause further stress or harm to ourselves or others. We will certainly re-enforce the pattern of stress and anxiety.
This is why it’s so useful to get to know anxiety – to be calm, breathe deeply, be aware and let it be – to befriend it. Meditation is helpful because techniques like Vipassana (insight meditation) encourage all of those responses as well as compassion for the self. Once you allow anxiety, you make the space for the deeper causal emotion to come up, such as anger, fear or grief, and this too will flow through you and dissipate.
Anxiety isn’t going to go away, but when we learn to observe and allow it, it takes the sting out of it and puts power back in to our hands.
If you don’t think you have any control over anxiety try this: next time you feel anxious, focus on the sensations in your body and try to INCREASE your anxiety. Not to the point of panic, but just so that you notice the increase. If you can increase it, you can also decrease it.
When we experience anxiety as a result of low self-esteem, working directly with the anxiety and taking responsibility for it opens pathways to healing other issues and coming to a calmer more contented acceptance of who we really are.
Perhaps anxiety will not become your best friend but you can manage the suffering you associate with it by dealing directly with it and accepting its presence without fighting or running.
Photo credit: Aarón Blanco Tejedor