What do you do about anxiety?

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 (I’ve spent so much time with her teachings, that we’re on a first name basis) describes an experience, on a particular retreat, of unabating anxiety every time she sat down to meditate. Struggling with it for days, unable to find its source, or make it subside, she visited her teacher looking for guidance. After listening to her describe the experience, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche said “Oh, that’s the Daikini’s Bliss! That’s a high level of spiritual bliss.” Hearing this, Pema became excited about her next meditation practice. After Rinpoche left, she sat down on her cushion, ready to experience it again, however 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.”

Anxiety (and panic attacks) are a pretty common occurrence, especially in stressful professions. I suffered with anxiety for many years, pre- and post-law practice, as did many of my friends and colleagues. One of the first things I learned about anxiety, which was very helpful to me (in moments when I felt like I was losing my mind), was that the thoughts you think in those moments aren’t true. They are real, but they are not the truth. They are “anxious thoughts,” which arise from the bio-chemical/neurological state your brain is in at that moment. You don’t need to believe those thoughts. Just let them be, and they will go away when your body settles back to normal. This idea alone was incredibly comforting.

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. Yes, welcome it. I know that sounds crazy; why would you ever welcome anxiety? Well, because if you push it away, it will be worse. It will last longer. And you will create new anxiety about having anxiety. The mind is brilliant at creating traps like this for you.

In order to “welcome 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, and how much you wish it would stop, drop your attention into your body. 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. You will notice that the more you focus your attention on the feelings, rather than on the terrifying thoughts that triggered the anxiety, the quicker the feelings will subside. In essence, you are cutting off the story-line in your head that’s feeding the anxiety with fearful thoughts.

You can try this practice with any negative or unpleasant emotion, like anger, sadness, shame, guilt, etc. In my experience, this practice (also known as mindfulness) 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 emotions, even the bad ones. They don’t need to be suppressed or numbed. You can welcome all your emotions, and really savor the experience of being human.