What do you do about anxiety?

Anxiety is a pretty common occurrence, especially in stressful busy lives. I suffered with anxiety for many years, as did many of my friends and colleagues. One of the first things I learned about anxiety, years ago, which was very helpful to me (particularly at times when I felt like I was losing my mind with panic), was that the thoughts you think in those moments aren’t true. 

They are “anxious thoughts,” which arise from the aroused state of your body/brain in that moment. You don’t need to believe those thoughts, or magnify them, or engage with them when they are spinning out of control. You can just let them be, and they will go away when your body settles back to normal. This idea alone was incredibly comforting. Naming them, separating them, and discounting their validity, especially during an anxiety attack, can be helpful and stabilizing. 

One of my favorite teachings on handling negative emotions comes from Pema Chodron’s book, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.

Pema describes encountering an experience of unabating anxiety every time she sat down to meditate, while she was on a retreat. She struggled with it for days. Unable to find its source, or make it subside, she visited her teacher looking for guidance. Upon describing her experience and frustration to him, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche said “Oh, that’s the Daikini’s Bliss! That’s a high level of spiritual bliss.” As soon as she heard this, Pema became instantly excited about her next meditation practice, no longer concerned with feeling it, she became eager to feel it. And after Rinpoche left, she sat down on her cushion, ready to experience it again, but the feelings were gone.

When he said that, that was melting it, or space coming into it, or warmth coming into it. You change the way you look at it.”

The teaching on negative emotions, like anxiety, in many spiritual traditions (in this case, the Shambala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism) is first to drop the resistance. Resisting the emotion (wanting it to stop, trying to make it stop, worrying that it will never stop) will only make it worse. Instead of focusing on getting rid of it, change your relationship to it. Welcome it.

I know that sounds crazy; why would you ever welcome anxiety?

Well, because the very disposition of trying to push it away makes it worse. The resistance exacerbates the situation and makes it last longer. And that will create new anxiety about having anxiety. The mind is brilliant at creating traps like this for you. It’s one thing to have a panic or anxiety attack which last for a short time, but the fear and anticipation of having one again, at any moment, can haunt a person all the time. 

So, in order to “welcome it,” to work on dropping the resistance to it, when you feel it beginning, treat the anxiety with curiosity. This is a fantastic tool. Get curious about your anxiety. Instead of continuing the inner dialogue about how bad it is, or how much you wish it would stop, make it your Daikini’s Bliss, and drop your eager attention into your body to investigate it.

Try to locate the experience of anxiety in the different parts of your body. You could slowly scan each area with your mind, and ask yourself “do I feel anything anxiety related in my right foot? In my left foot? In my right leg? In my left leg?” Do this slowly, and concentrate on really investigating and feeling each area of the body. Continue going all the way up your body, until you’ve located the areas where you are experiencing the anxious feeling. (For me this is usually in my stomach, in the center of my chest, in the back of my head, and in my hands).

When you’ve found it in your body, start to articulate the actual sensation of it with words. “I feel a huge weight in my stomach. It feels like an anvil sitting in there, pushing downwards. It feels heavy, and it’s pressing on all the organs under it… In my chest, I feel outward pressure, like a huge pocket of air is trapped in my chest. It feels hot, and like it’s expanding…” Continue to tell yourself about the experience for as long as you feel it, in great detail.

You will notice that the more you focus your attention on the feelings in your body, rather than on the terrifying thoughts that triggered the anxiety, the quicker the feelings will subside. In essence, by dropping into your body, you are cutting off the story-line in your head, which is feeding the anxiety with fearful thoughts. And you are unhooking your attention from the scary thought stream, and redirecting the attention into your physical sensations. This is a form of grounding into the body and out of the mind, and staying fully present with the experience. 

You can try this practice with any negative or unpleasant emotion, like anger, sadness, shame, guilt, etc. In my experience, this practice is an extremely effective tool. When you get used to doing this, you come to find out that you can actually enjoy the experience of any emotion, even the bad ones. The more you allow yourself to feel them, the greater your capacity and resilience to process them through. They don’t need to be suppressed or numbed. You can welcome all of your emotions, and get better and stronger at welcoming them, and really savor the experience of being human.