Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Loving Your Anxiety

Love Your Anxiety (Or at least get to know it)

I know it sounds crazy to even imagine "loving" your anxiety. But one of the fundamental truths about being human is that we have emotions, including anxiety. What makes us human is that we also have the ability to make meaning of our experiences and that meaning-making is what turns a simple emotion into a recipe for disaster.

Anxiety is fear of a future negative outcome. Stress has to do with not wanting to be in the present that you find yourself in. We imagine that outcome over a range from slight discomfort to a major catastrophe. 

Some amount of sympathetic nervous system activation (which causes stress and anxiety) is needed to keep us cautious and therefore keep us safe.  But the anxious state is meant to be a short-term, action-inducing state. So when anxiety runs amok, our bodies suffer. There's a fascinating book called "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers" that describes all the different body systems that are affected when stress hormones predominate in the body.

Stress and anxiety happen in the mind and the body. The mind has a random thought that we believe, and the body reacts with tension and often uncomfortable sensations in the gut or the chest. Tightness in the body often restricts breathing as well which can lead to a hold host of other sensations. All this discomfort creates a state of mind that is geared toward getting away from the discomfort at all costs, leading to smoking, drinking, overeating, yelling at your loved ones, etc. Too much anxiety can even lead to a crash, which then feels like depression. 

So what's the solution? Love your anxiety (ok, I know that's not going to happen!). At the
very least, though, to change and anxious state we need to acknowledge and accept that it is happening. Anxiety is part of our self-protective capacity. It is an indicator of something that needs attention. It is a call to action. 

What's your anxious feeling telling you? Maybe it's telling you you're overworked and need a break? Maybe it's telling you that you don't feel safe or fulfilled in your current relationship or career? Or maybe it is telling you that you have some work to do on your self-confidence or ability to set boundaries? In order to figure out what it is telling us, we need to pause and listen while recognizing that the emotions don't have to control us, we do have a choice about how to feel. 

Some simple ways to work with an anxious mood in the moment:
  • Allow it to be without judging it as "bad" or "wrong" or somehow a sign of your failure. The extra layer of "shoulding" just makes the anxiety worse.
  • Be curious about what triggered the anxious state.
  • Give your anxiety something to do. Anxiety often shows up in the body as a jittery feeling. This is excess energy in need of direction. So dance, shake, shimmy, walk, run, do some vigorous yoga. Get the energy out and then try to do something a bit more quieting.
  • Notice the anxiety as body tension and let go of tension in the muscles. Tight shoulders? Let them drop. Tight jaw? Let it drop.
  • Uncomfortable sensation in the belly? That might be just the result of the abdominal muscles tensing. You might take over the tension (tighten your ab muscles) and then stop tensing, allowing the muscles to let go.
  • We humans seem to have a natural tendency to catastrophize. Maybe instead of catastrophising, ask yourself: "OK, it feels like everything could go wrong, and is there any way this could go right?"
  • Pay attention to your exhales, even making them longer. Exhaling lowers your heartrate, which gets elevated during stress.
  • Ask for help. Social interaction with a safe, supportive other is one of the ways that we humans calm down.
  • Stay away from coffee - yep, coffee drinkers have been shown to have random spikes in their anxiety during the day.
  • Look around your environment, recognizing that you're physically safe and that there aren't any threats in your immediate vicinity. You might notice and name 3 objects that you see, 2 sounds you hear, and one thing you feel with your sense of touch. or you might count all the objects you see of a certain color or shape. Anything that breaks up the circular or negative thought pattern that is making you anxious.
Of course there are many other ways to deal with anxiety, including lifestyle habits of getting enough sleep and exercise. Do you have a favorite? Share it with us! 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Getting Caught Up

This may end up being an unpopular view, but I’ve been grappling with this inquiry for a week now and decided to just let it out. Would love to hear others' thoughts on this...

At the Awaken Chicago conference a few months ago, Pema Chödron spoke on anger. She mentioned an ancient Buddhist text that referred to our human tendency to try to fight against the issues “out there” (i.e. in the world outside of us) in order to resolve our anger. This text concluded that the person who does that ends up perpetually angry and even more frequently frustrated because there will always be issues “out there” to make us angry. In the end, the only way to truly resolve our issues (and to effectively work towards solving the issues “out there”) is to also work with those feelings within ourselves.

In light of this teaching, I’ve been thinking about all the recent horrific events which, through the vehicle of technology, have been brought to our awareness. Events fueled by the prejudice that leads to fear and hatred, and then to violence and injustice. I've been thinking about how the seeds of that hatred live inside every human being. Each of us has that seed in us, and it is the very rare human who has not watered that seed in any way. We are animals, and studies have shown that fear or avoidance of “other” is in fact an inherent human tendency just as it is for all members of the animal kingdom. We have the benefit/liability of a brain that perceives “other” even in members of our own species. 

Of course it is unconscionable to harm innocent others because of that perceived difference. Of course it is. And of course it is important to quickly and decisively act to restore justice when injustice rears its head. And still there is the question of how do we heal that propensity for prejudice & discrimination within our collective? When actions are performed out of fear, anger, prejudice and hatred, do we heal that tendency in our collective by allowing it free reign within ourselves? 

Pema spoke of that ancient text which suggested that the only way to heal is if we are each able to hold our anger “in the cradle of loving kindness.” I interpret that to mean that I have to recognize & acknowledge my own feelings of anger, prejudice and hatred with compassion even as I seek to change what is happening in the collective. Let’s not forget that each of us as individuals make up the collective. Humanity is us, not “us” & “them.” What is the use of me insisting that white people, rich people, police, the 1%, etc should not act out of prejudice, hatred, greed and anger if I meet their behavior with, and indeed cultivate the very same tendencies? If I refuse to acknowledge those same tendencies (even if lesser in degree) in myself, why should I expect anyone else to? Isn’t the popular wisdom that you can’t solve a problem with the same energy that created it? Not to mention the damage I do to my mental and physical health by perpetuating that bitterness, anger and hatred.


There is appropriate aggression, and then there is getting “caught up.” The media likes for us to be caught up. It’s a ratings booster. It’s true the media is helping to uncover the nastiness that needs to be brought into the light of day so that it can be transformed. And yet, when we are so caught up that we take individual behaviors and generalize those to entire groups, to the point where innocent members of those groups become targets, are we changing the propensity for prejudice-fueled injustice in the collective? Or are we perpetuating it?