I recently shared four parts on the topic of anxiety on my Instagram and Facebook @spaceforreflections, here are all four parts together:
Anxiety, part 1
For some of you the concept of anxiety might be crystal clear, for me it is not – it is most complex. So this is a post for you who wonder: what is this, anxiety? It will be a longer post chunked up in parts.
Anxiety can be described in many ways and different theoretical schools think differently about what functions it serves and then what to do about it to “fix it”. My line of thinking comes from psychodynamics and more specifically affect-focused psychodynamics. Then I am also influenced by my Zen practice.
From an affect-focused point of view anxiety and fear are related. Fear is evoked by objective stimuli (like getting scared by a dog’s bark) and anxiety is triggered by something inside of us that we perceive as a threat: (drum roll) our feelings. Somehow, historically, we got wired in such a way that feeling and God forbid expressing certain feelings were associated with danger to our psychological survival – endangering our attachment to our caregivers (nature, nurture, and other circumstances help to wire us too). Anxiety is our conscious awareness of bodily sensations such as an elevated heart rate, due to our nervous system’s activation. Anxiety is letting us know that what we are experiencing on the inside is somehow a threat to our psychological survival and therefore mobilizes defenses to help us “hide” from our discomfort, aka defense mechanisms (for example when we smile to talk about something difficult to make it less threatening).
Anxiety is a perfect signal of your current inner life – it’s like having a fever: something inside is perceived as a threat (a virus or a feeling) – sound the alarm!! Taking away the fever can help you rest and recover, just as anti-anxiety meds can from excessive anxiety, but it doesn’t touch the cause of the alarm (sometimes the help of medication is needed no doubt). Sometimes the fever will pass and you have no idea what caused it – maybe that’s ok. But if the fever would reoccur or be constant, maybe we’re missing something. I encourage you, if you suffer from a lot of anxiety, to not stop the journey here. There is more work to do so you can live a more freer and fuller life.
Anxiety, part 2
Anxiety, being sensations in the body (not thoughts!), is not just one symptom but can come in many forms, like elevated heart rate, tension in the body, fidgeting, nausea, stomach cramps/need to use the bathroom, migraine headaches, difficulties thinking, blurry vision, ringing in the ears and hallucinations, and more. The symptoms listed here go from anxiety discharged in the striated muscles (voluntary muscles, like when you feel tension in your shoulders and chest), to smooth muscles (involuntary muscles like bowel movements), to cognitive/perceptive disruption. Anxiety can go up and down pretty quickly depending on the circumstances. Still, generally, when anxiety goes to the smooth muscles or to cognitive/perceptive disruption (this is when the parasympathetic nervous system causes a drop in blood flow and neuroendocrine discharge) it is hard to be present with anything else (like figuring out your feelings). Then anxiety needs to be regulated by being aware of it, observing it and labeling it in the body, and seeing the causation (my dad said something that really made me angry, but instead of being angry I got nauseous and shut down). Aha! It can take a little while to calm down because neurotransmitters that get released need to be metabolized and blood flow stabilized.
If anxiety still lingers, one explanation could be that there are defenses in the way, like identifying with the anxiety: “But this what I’m like”, where being anxious a lot has become normalized and gets brushed away. (If you want to read more about this Jon Frederickson has written a lot about it, both in books and on Facebook).
It can be hard to grasp the causation in live-action situations; don’t worry if you don’t get what happened. Stay curious and compassionate towards yourself – this is hard and often deeply wired, but maybe you can start to get snippets from different experiences of how you seem to cope. To take help from a therapist to understand this can be very helpful.
Anxiety, part 3
From my zen training, I would take a somewhat different approach to anxiety, although more similar than not – it all comes back to experiencing the physical sensations in the body and taking it from there. Feelings are seen as bodily sensations + accompanying thoughts, and anxiety would probably jump into that category as well. To walk the Buddhist path is in short to free yourself from delusion. Clinging to the stories you tell yourself, like we often do when we have strong feelings or anxiety, is therefore seen as a form of delusion. It doesn’t mean the story is not important or of some significance, it just means that a story is still a story, something we can choose to engage in or not. The more we cling, the more narrow-minded/fixated we become – we cannot see beyond our own trees, and we lose the flexibility to see the bigger picture. To let go of our stories and simply experience whatever sensations that come up in the body, without fixing them away, is a way to “work through” your feelings and anxiety. Sensations come and go, and by radically accepting that this too, the highs and the lows, is part of life, we become less attached to our stories. It is not personal, yet at the same time it is.
With practice, sitting in hours of meditation, the container for containing difficult sensations grows and the stories are not so urgent anymore (you probably gain some insight into your inner workings by spending a lot of time in silence along the way though). The stories become worn out. Let me emphasize that this path is not as detached as it might sound, it’s rather most intimate, to dare to face your inner going on’s hours on end. Important to mention also, is that this practice benefits from a teacher who has gone through her version of the work and a community of people who can support each other through this trying practice.
Anxiety, part 4
I have already touched upon how we can regulate anxiety, but let’s try to make it really clear. As anxiety is a warning signal to the body that what we’re feeling is dangerous we need to help our bodies understand that what was a real danger when we were children is not when we are adults. Yes, it hurts being left by your loved one/s when you’re an adult, but it’s not dangerous per se. When you are a little child and your loved one/s leave that is an actual threat to survival. So what we need to do as adults when we are anxious is to really remember that anxiety is not dangerous, it’s a signal that we feel unsafe. We need to learn to be our own grown-up to our inner child so we can face the perceived unsafe feelings together (when anxiety is regulated) and learn that we don’t need to live in chains to our anxiety.
Practically regulating anxiety is to come back to the physical experience in the body: observe, notice, and label what anxiety actually feels like. Often we just run away from this because it is so very uncomfortable to start to “hang out” with your anxiety. Feel free to say your labels out loud or write them down, like “I feel tense in my stomach up to my chest”. If it’s difficult to feel anything in particular, scan through your whole body starting from your feet and up to your head. This helps you focus on the anxiety itself rather than thoughts that often make you soon further down the spiral of suffering. It also helps you to stay here and now and not go off to the future or the past, “the realms of thought”. Stay with your physical experience for as long as needed, usually, it takes some minutes to get grounded. If it’s too overwhelming, be compassionate towards yourself: you tried and can always try again. Sometimes other sensory input can help to connect yourself back to your body, like alternating hot/cold showers, listening to music, moving your body, etc, (but that can also be a way of avoiding your anxiety) – see if you can then tune in to your body and observe what is actually going on. Not practicing actually observing and understanding our anxiety, our warning signals, will still be as loud as before. Our psyche will take to any defenses to protect us, even if that in itself will hurt us even more (and is often what causes us more suffering than anxiety).
Was this helpful? Questions or comments? Please let me know 🙏
Follow me on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/spaceforreflections/