Anxiety seems to be one of the most pervasive conditions bedeviling people these days. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given that we are bombarded by chronic bad news and dire warnings at every turn. Many of my clients struggle with chronic, underlying anxiety, and sometimes, in the worst-case scenarios, these manifest in full-blown anxiety attacks that can mimic a heart attack. This can be extremely frightening, with profuse sweating, shortness of breath, feelings of faintness, heart palpitations and all kinds of other somatic responses.
How can we understand anxiety? There are many situations in which fear is a natural and totally understandable response. The danger is getting trapped in it. I have found that many people who are suffering from anxiety have a huge terror of the unknown. This is often the underground condition when you go digging a bit. And of course when you think about it, the unknown basically embraces all of your future. Often a very anxious person responds to this existential terror by trying to get his or her life under control. People who get obsessive about trying to control details in their environment often have this huge fear running not too far below the surface. Others drown the anxiety in addictive behaviours when the monster from the depths rears its ugly head.
A very common response is compulsive busyness. When you stay very busy, those intrusive, unmanageable, anxious thoughts have to stay on the back-burner. Comparatively speaking, working out like a maniac and exercising are healthier responses. At least this can be good for the body and the circulation. There is nothing like getting good and tired so the anxiety has less of a chance of keeping you awake at night.
But perhaps we can face into anxiety and understand it in a different way. The terrors of anxiety are particularly monstrous for those who are caught in the three dimensional frame of their lives …believing that this body, this ego, this personality, this life is all there is. With this comes the caveman’s mind-set of survival of the fittest. The amygdala is the oldest part of the brain that when faced with a threat goes into fight, flight or freeze. Anxiety was a life-saver for the caveman – without which he was the sabre tooth tiger’s lunch. It clearly played an important part in our evolution. We come by it naturally and we can understand its roots. But imagine the caveman trying to cope in this day and age, striking out at every shadow and trying to control this complex environment we live in. (This could be a very bad movie, unless Johnny Depp played the lead!) The anxiety is now the inner tiger – eating him from the inside out.
What is required of us today is a higher level of consciousness. We have to trust our Life and the deep connection to the Self. It is my belief that there is some deeper purpose guiding us in this life – and that when we truly ask for guidance and are receptive to being guided, we will be helped. Looking back at the many times in my life when I was ridden with anxiety, I can see now that I often had attachments to how things should work out. If X didn’t happen, then it would be terrible, and I was filled with dread, spinning out various scenarios in my mind.
The ironic part was that when X didn’t happen, something totally unforeseen and unexpected came along and my life changed, most often for the better. Finally I started to develop a sense of humour (thank God); if I hadn’t my anxiety would have killed me! I learned to pray for guidance and to meditate. And yes, I started watching for the signs. I began to see the pattern. It was as if Life took an interest in me because I was interested in connecting with something higher than my little three dimensional life. Sometimes the signs would be a random comment that someone made, and I got the truth of it on a deeper level. Sometimes, in meditation, a fluttering insight would come, as gentle, as elusive as a butterfly. If I didn’t catch it, it was gone. Sometimes I would just get so tired of the endless mind-chatter in my brain, I would wake up and realize the stories I was telling myself were just that….stories.
The most practical thing you can do when you realize you are starting to spin into anxiety is to find a quiet space somewhere and force yourself to breathe diaphragmatically (this can be anything from a bathroom stall, or sitting at your desk or behind the wheel of your car). When we are tense and stressed, the body’s response is to limit itself to short, shallow breathing in the upper part of the lungs. If you want to check whether or not you are breathing with your diaphragm – place your hand on your lower belly. When you inhale, the diaphragm, which is a large muscle that spans from the lower front ribs to the back, should push down, creating a vacuum in the lower part of your lungs. You can see this when a little baby is lying on its back. Its little belly goes up and down with the breath. Let the breath be received gently into the lower part of your lungs. You don’t have to take big breaths, you just need to engage the diaphragm. This will push your lower belly out gently against your hands. This tricks the primitive mind-body into thinking/feeling that everything is okay, and you can relax. It is almost impossible to stay in an anxiety spin when you are breathing in this way.
Ultimately, however, the absolutely best thing you can do is to simply trust your Life. Until you learn to trust your life, you will often feel anxious and out of control. When what you are hoping for does not work out exactly the way you want it, it may simply mean that your Life has something else in store for you. Trust it. Go forward with an open heart, ask for guidance and watch for the signs. Do your best, do your work – but know that one door often has to close before another opens, and that will be true of your death also. So meanwhile, don’t worry about trying to be in control. The feeling of being in control was only ever an illusion. It’s more important to learn to dance.
Here is an inside look of someone who coped with anxiety disorder:
And now listen to the incomparable Coleman Barks recite Rumi – talking about the connection to the One – accompanied by the fabulous Jai Uttal: