I was born in the middle of a war zone. One of my earliest memories is of a bomb falling near our house on an otherwise quiet day. So wholly unexpected it freaked the hell out of me. And this is how my friendship with anxiety was born.
I went through life having a sensibly over-alert nervous system trying to keep me alive, even long after the war was over. In medical terms you might call this PTSD or generalized anxiety, I personally don’t identify with those concepts at all.
I don’t see my being or experience in the world as pathological or requiring medical intervention. This is true for me, but it may not be true for others. I’m not opposed to psychiatry or medical interventions. It has simply been my experience that through the gift of anxiety I developed a precious skill: which is how to impact my own physiology with my consciousness, my breathing and my thinking.
Over the years I’ve come to think very methodically about how to unravel every thread that makes anxiety possible. And these are the considerations I’ve found most helpful in changing my brain, my mind and my experience.
1) Say YES to your experience.
I learned this from Buddhism, but you’ll also find the same technique being taught to Trauma patients as the acronym R.A.I.N (Recognize, Allow, Investigate, Nourish). You will also find that a very similar technique was developed by a 42 year old man named Lester Levenson called the Sedona method.
The idea, broadly speaking, is to focus all our intensity on the sensation of anxiety, disrupting the flow of thoughts that accompany and exacerbate the feeling. We look for the physical location of anxiety in our body and ask “what does it feel like,” rather than why we are having this experience. We open ourselves fully to the experience, we say yes to it.
This step gives relief in the moment the emotion is happening. Overtime you stop thinking of it as an undesirable experience. It becomes simply an experience without any inherent meaning. There is a peculiar joy in this.
2) Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway
Anxiety can disrupt our willingness to act, let alone take risks. When we’re afraid we’re more likely to flee than jump head first into an adventure. Therefore it’s important to recognize the areas in life where this unfounded fear is holding us back or blocking us from moving forward.
The best way I’ve found to deal with this is to say “I’ll handle it,” no matter what is going to be the outcome of the action I want to take. I’ll handle it. And if don’t get the results I want I tell myself I can learn from this.
When you say I’ll handle it before you take the plunge you put reality in perspective. Yes, you can handle it. And if after you’ve made a mistake you say I can learn from this, you’ve changed the result from a failure to a learning experience. I learned this from the books of Susan Jeffers, especially Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.
3) Look for Broader Causes
Your anxiety most probably didn’t start with you. This may be true genetically, but it might also be true in ways you wouldn’t expect.
The Psychological Therapy practice of Family Constellations gets you to identify life patterns of members of your family whose fates you might be unconsciously replicating. As weird as it sounds, you might be living the emotional reactions of an alcoholic uncle who was banished from the family when you were a child.
While the theory sounds rather extraordinary, participants in Family Constellation Therapy often report radical transformations in and disappearances of their undesirable behavioral patterns. I highly recommend the book It Didn’t Start with You by Mark Wolynn for an introduction to this methodology of self-enquiry.
4) Master the Art of Bio Feedback
Scientists in the West are only now beginning to confirm without a shadow of a doubt that a human being can consciously activate autoimmune responses through breath work, movement and guided meditations.
Some academics like Bruce Lipton claim that our beliefs can even impact our autoimmune responses. When you look at peculiar things like Faith Healing or the much documented Placebo effect, you’ll find that there might be something to this.
For anxiety, what has been clinically demonstrated to work is a minimization of our oxygen intake. Breathing through the nose for example, or taking long deep breath in, that you then release very slowly (as if through a straw), has a demonstrable effect on calming us down.
The repetition of words like “relax” have been shown to reduce heart rates and blood pressure.
For me personally, breath work, meditative visualizations and the art of shifting my perspective using language are proven staples for consciously influencing my autonomic nervous system.
5) I Turn My Fear into a Spiritual Path
Anxiety is just a physical sensation. It does not have to be accompanied by a story. But what if we psychologically flipped the narrative we normally tell about that feeling on its head?
For example, I learned from the Kabbalists that they see waking up in the morning with a jolt of fear in their chest as a good thing. It means that they are very close to the light of the creator in that moment and are on the verge of a breakthrough of some sort.
Imagine coming to associate the sensation we normally label as anxiety with the pleasure of anticipating a breakthrough? And why can’t you? It’s just a sensation, it’s up to you what meaning you assign to it.
The Buddhists have a similar reframing on the sensation of anxiety. They say that suffering is a trigger, a gateway to enlightenment. If we didn’t have a pain point, why would we ever be roused into wakefulness?
Wakefulness is being present to the immediacy of our experience, rather than running our usual automatic thinking. So how awesome it is to have something that reminds you to be present?
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