Anxiety runs rampant in my society. We are hyped up, frantic. The way we live makes it worse of course, but we aren't the first humans, nor will we be the last, to suffer from this condition.
I wonder about the romantic idea that once upon a time, humans were not so anxious. Really? I don't imagine a past when people were at ease, because life in a human body is not easy. Worrying about predators, a sick child, surviving the winter or worrying about the hunt, the harvest, the weather, the neighboring clan ... good lord. Life is fraught, and we humans are mighty worriers.
Here's a wonderful essay written by a guy who has battled industrial strength anxiety most of his life, published in the New York Times last week.
... anxiety is not the kind of affliction that can be eradicated. This is because anxiety is not merely or essentially psychiatric. Even when it swells to the level of a disorder, it remains first and foremost an emotion, universally felt and necessary for survival, not to mention for a full experience of human life. Toss aside the bath water of anxiety and you will also be tossing aside excitement, motivation, vigilance, ambition, exuberance and inspiration, to name just several of the inevitable sacrifices. Get rid of anxiety? Even if you could — and you can’t — why would you want to?
He is not a romantic who believes in a simpler time when people weren't anxious. He doesn't believe it helps anything to try to reject or ignore anxiety. He suggests embracing it. Perhaps to an even greater degree than Tara Brach, this dude is into radical acceptance.
I, too, believe anxiety is part of the survival instinct. When we get jacked up on caffeine, sleep deprivation, traffic jams and deadlines at work, it can become a huge problem, especially for people who have no skills with which to manage it. Something as dumb as a parking spot can become the focus for arguments, shouting, finger waving, cursing. Oh the red face and bulging eyes and bulging veins on the forehead of a guy I saw yesterday, yelling at another guy for stealing his parking space. (He owns a public parking space? No, of course not.) That episode was a perfect example of anxiety spinning into something very toxic. I stayed and watched carefully until he got back in his car and roared away, to make sure it didn't escalate into physical violence. Scenes like this take place every day.
This is why you have to meditate. Yes, you. You must meditate, so do not argue, I tell myself every morning in the mirror. Then I sit down and meditate. I have never had a moment's regret afterwards. If you have never meditated, sign up for a class on the internet or in your community. Learning to sit in a group really helps. You will need instruction. Meditation is not about emptying the mind, believe me, and it doesn't come naturally to us. Take a class.
Meditation temporarily dismantles the constant storytelling we humans engage in. When anxious, we try to explain it which is not always possible, hence we invent scary stories. Hypochondria is a perfect example of storytelling around anxiety. In the case of the parking spot, this man told himself that it was the other driver and the loss of a parking spot that made him so angry. Nothing could be further from the truth. Separating the emotion from the story is a crucial piece of managing anxiety. If that man had suddenly awakened to his intense anxiety, instead of yelling at the other driver, maybe he could have experienced self compassion. Maybe he could have said to himself, My gosh I am anxious. What can I do now to soothe myself?
It helps to remember that we actually do not have control over much of anything in life. Yes, some things, but not most things, including parking spots. Letting go of the illusion of control can be a relief, it surely can. One of the physiological aspects of anxiety is clenching - the jaw, your fists, shoulders, hands, feet. Sometimes anxiety can tie the entire body in knots. The body is literal. If you remember you don't control the world, your body will relax after which your storytelling apparatus will back away from tales of doom and destruction. It's difficult to remain anxious when the body is relaxed.
But how to unclench, you may ask. A good question. One way many people relinquish the idea that they can control most, if not everything in the world, is through spiritual practice. As long as the practice doesn't involve magic (a control behavior), any practice will do. Spiritual practice builds a relationship with mystery, with the vastness of the world and universe. That relationship provides context and perspective, reminds us of our place in the order of things. Many came before us, many will come after. No one has ever been able to control the world. No one. The urge to think you have control is a God complex. It's not true and can be a burden, also it can turn into a pathology.
Spiritual practice is different than faith or belief. There are days I come to my meditation and prayer without a molecule of belief that it will make a difference. My faith comes and goes; it is very fickle. It's the practice that helps me manage anxiety.
There are numerous physical practices that relax the body. The martial arts, yoga, dancing, walking, running, gardening, cooking, swimming, sex - you name it. If you enjoy doing it, any physical activity will help you relax.
Another technique for managing anxiety is improvisation. Cultivate the skill of turning on a dime, changing direction, blowing off Plan A in order to do something else. I'm not suggesting that you become a flake. There are commitments that must be kept, but there's always some personal wiggle room in the daily schedule. If you learn to play with that space, switch it up, take a different route to or from a commitment that must be kept, it will help you manage anxiety. The practice of improvisation reminds us that there are always many choices available in every situation, that instead of the urge to hold ever tighter to our stories of control, we could let go, consider the options and try something else instead. Learn to play jazz, practice musical improvisation. Take a contact improv class.
Improvising builds self confidence. It teaches us that no matter what comes at us, we will figure a way to move through. It reminds us we are resourceful, inventive, and endlessly creative.
Humor is an excellent tool for dealing with anxiety. It can't be forced, unfortunately - or fortunately, perhaps. It's much more difficult to get stuck in anxiety with a light heart. When I say humor, I mean more than the capacity to laugh and think things are funny. I mean lightness of heart. Do you know what I'm talking about?
Though I can not honestly say I'm able to embrace anxiety, I do accept it as part of my humanity. Trying to push it away or deny it has never been at all helpful. Do you experience anxiety? How do you cope? The above certainly is not all encompassing, it's just what I do. What do you do?
May your day be calm and uplifting. May it be so. Shalom.