Living with anxietyBack to blog
They say you teach (a) what you know and (b) what you want to know. That might explain why I teach people how to meditate and specifically, how to work with and manage chronic anxiety. As someone who has lived with generalised anxiety disorder for the better part of the last 7 years, I feel I have some wisdom worth sharing.
What I have learnt
Lesson 1: What you resist, persists.
It is normal to push away what you don’t like. This is especially the case when experiencing physical and emotional pain and discomfort. It is counter-intuitive to accept something that hurts you so it is not surprising you have an aversion to it. Unfortunately the energy invested in trying to remove physical or emotional pain ensures its amplification and persistence.
For a long time, I invested a lot of energy in trying to remove my anxiety. When I felt anxious, my inner dialogue would go something like this:
“Anxiety, you’re back again. Arrgghh. The day is a write-off already and it’s only 7am!”
“Go away, will you?! I don’t know why you’re here again.”
“I don’t want to feel this way. I shouldn’t have to feel this way. I am eating well, sleeping enough…so why I feel like this?”
The harder I worked to remove my anxiety, the more anxious I felt. This is similar to the situation an insomniac might find themselves in – the more effort they put into falling asleep, the more unlikely it is they will fall asleep.
How meditation helps
Accepting rather than resisting my anxiety has been crucial to its management. Rather than wanting things to be different, meditation has taught me to accept my thoughts and feelings rather than resist them. Rather than invest my energy in pushing away my feelings of anxiety, I channel my energy into being curious about the physical and emotional discomfort I am feeling. More on what it means to be-friend and be curious about anxiety in another blog post soon!
Lesson 2: The physical sensations in your body are not anxiety, they are just physical sensations
Emotional discomfort and pain generally has a physical component or sensation that sits alongside it. The sensation is often experienced between the hips and head. For many people, this sensation is simply that – a physical sensation is the body. For those that live with anxiety, this physical sensation has a narrative that sits alongside it. It is this narrative or story that causes what is otherwise just a physical sensation into something much more sinister (at least in your head!).
For me, the physical sensation was in my throat. The story that went with this physical sensation was one of fear. The inner dialogue was generally along the lines of:
“Oh no, the anxiety is back.”
“The day is going to be terrible.”
“Bugger, the way I’m feeling now (pretty terrible) is going to affect my day; my interactions with people at work, with friends, family, etc.”
Whenever I experienced the physical sensation, I felt anxious. When I had periods of feeling this physical sensation the majority of my waking hours, I felt anxious all the time.
Until I read ‘Living with It,’ an amazing book written by Bev Aisbett. There is one line in Bev’s book that really stood out – ‘You need to see physical symptoms for what they are – physical. There is no need to bring anxiety onto the scene at all. Say to yourself ‘this is just my body’s response to stress, there is no outside danger.’
I realised I had become very skilled at associating what I considered to be an uncomfortable sensation in my body with being anxious. This become a habit and meant that whenever I felt particular physical sensations in my body, anxiety would come onto the scene. I had created very strong neural pathways in my brain whereby I would feel the physical sensation in my throat and expect the worse. With time though, I have begun to loosen the grip and relationship between the physical sensation and the feeling of anxiety.
How meditation helps
Rather than react to the feelings of anxiety with resistance, meditation has helped me to accept rather than judge the anxious feelings. I have also used my meditation sittings to give the physical sensations the attention they deserve. Like I would treat an upset child, I now give my anxiety and its associated physical symptoms the attention it deserves, treating it with kindness and patience.
When I practise mindfulness, the physical sensations are not good or bad, they just are. I am reminded that there does not need to be a story that goes with the physical sensations. They are what they are – simply physical sensations. Meditation has also helped me to be aware of the narrative that goes hand-in-hand with the physical sensations. I can now tell myself with confidence, “Mind, no need to bring anxiety onto the scene at all.” Instead of directing my attention to the well-worn story starting (yet again!) in my mind, I direct my attention to the present moment. This can involve me focusing on my breath and listening to sounds.
Lesson 3: Anxiety is never permanent
Sufferers of anxiety live with the fear that they will be anxious forever. This thought alone amplifies the anxious feelings. The reality is that anxiety passes with time. Like a cloud pass through the sky, one’s emotional landscape is constantly changing.
How meditation helps
Through meditation, I have learnt that life is a constant flow of experiences rather than a solid block of tension. Meditation can be viewed as a microcosm of life; during a meditation, we can experience moments of tension and moments of relaxation, an ever changing internal landscape influenced by our genetics, what we eat, how much exercise we do, how much we have slept, and how we spend our time, amongst other factors. Through meditation, my relationship with my anxiety has shifted – it is no longer the enemy, nor something to be feared. Even though I know my anxiety may return, I am comforted by the fact it will not be with my permanently.
Is meditation enough to manage anxiety?
According to beyondblue, one in four Australians live with some form of anxiety. Many of these people turn to meditation to help manage their anxiety, hopeful that a regular meditation practice will at best cure them of their anxiety, or at least assist them to manage it better.
Meditation is just one tool to help manage anxiety. People often enrol in a meditation course with the expectation that learning to meditate will cure them of all their worries and discomfort. This is simply not the case. Regular meditation, along with medication, regular exercise and/or counselling may all be part of the plan to assist you to manage anxiety.
What has been your experience in managing anxiety? I would love to know!
In a later blog post, I’ll share some useful mindful metaphors to help manage anxiety and unhelpful thought patterns.
Learn how to manage your anxiety through meditation. Details on the next 5 week Learn to Meditate course in Preston are can found here.