Living with Anxiety
If you’re a human, you’ve undoubtedly experienced anxiety at some point in your life. Anxiety is part of the full range of our emotional experience, and we need it to survive. Though different people experience it to varying degrees of intensity or frequency, no one actually likes the experience of anxiety. Anxiety is by its very nature uncomfortable; we feel keyed-up or on edge, our heart races, our stomach drops, and our thoughts generally race with catastrophic, doomsday scenarios. Chronic anxiety sufferers may suffer panic symptoms, insomnia, and unintended weight loss due to their brains being “stuck” in survival mode. In this blog post, I’ll discuss how to identify helpful vs. unhelpful anxiety, and teach you a mindfulness technique to cope with the unhelpful kind in a more skillful and paradoxically effective way.
As mentioned above, sometimes anxiety can be helpful, signaling us that there’s some meaningful action we need to take in the moment (for example: pay the rent that’s a day late, get cracking on that paper with a deadline rapidly approaching, or make an appointment with the doctor in response to a physical symptom that’s concerning you). But for many of us, anxiety becomes excessive and unhelpful. Unhelpful anxiety is when you’re dwelling on something that you can’t control—or thinking about a response to a problem that you can’t take action on at the moment. This generally shows up as worrisome thoughts and accompanying bodily sensations of fear that wake us in the middle of the night, or gnawingly distract us from otherwise neutral or enjoyable activities.
Most of us tend to make unhelpful anxiety worse by either trying to avoid it (think procrastination, distracting yourself with Netflix, etc.) or by thinking a lot about it, turning it over and over again in your mind, imagining lots of catastrophic “what if” scenarios. This is called rumination, and it has a certain logic to it—your brain is essentially trying to solve the problem you’re worried about by planning for every possible negative scenario. Unfortunately, neither of these strategies tend to work, and in fact, they feed the “anxiety monster” in our heads, making it more powerful. It’s a vicious cycle: the more we think anxious thoughts, the more fearful we feel in our bodies, which colors our outlook, leading to even more catastrophizing, and on and on. On the other hand, if we try to ignore or distract away feelings of anxiety, it only works for a short time–our anxiety monster has a nasty habit of returning with even more vengeance—usually later in the day or early in the morning.
What if we tried a different, less effortful approach? Instead of trying to ignore anxiety or to engage it with lots of thinking, both of which take up a lot of time, effort, and mental bandwidth. What if we simply sat with it and allowed the feeling of anxiety to naturally come and go, like every emotional state does? This may feel counterintuitive or even silly at first, but try this: the next time you get a visit from the unhelpful anxiety monster in the middle of the night, treat it like a scientist would, objectively examining a strange visitor from another planet. From a somewhat detached place, observe how you’re noticing the anxiety in your body, with curiosity and as little judgment as possible. Resist the temptation to think about the thing you’re feeling anxious about—instead, stay with the sensations you feel in your body. You can say to yourself something along the lines of, “So this is anxiety. It is trying to signal there may be possible danger right now. I’m noticing my chest feels tight, my stomach is in knots, and my heart is beating fast. This anxiety feels very uncomfortable and scary. But I know I am not actually in any danger right now.”
A funny thing happens when we sit with anxiety with nonjudgmental curiosity: after a little time, the anxiety monster in our head gets bored and moves on. By not fueling it with lots of scary thoughts or trying to resist it by pushing it away, the unpleasant emotional experience comes and goes, like a wave breaking on the shore. With regular practice, the habit of mindful awareness and acceptance can help us cultivate a different relationship to anxiety. Though we will never “get rid of” our anxiety (nor would we want to!), we can learn to move through the discomfort with greater ease. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”