I wouldn’t have expected the ER doctor to say, “Welcome, you’ve just entered your dark night of the soul.” But if he had sent me on my way with information about what was happening, it would have been easier for me to arrive at the why.
A 60-year-old man bolts awake each morning at 3:00 a.m., worrying about his financial future, even though he’s financially secure. A 7-year-old girl worries that her parents will die. A 25-year-old woman ruminates that she doesn’t love her boyfriend enough (even though he’s everything she’s ever wanted in a partner). These are all people who are suffering from anxiety. While most people know what anxiety feels like, they often have a hard time describing what it is. Being able to define anxiety is one of the ways that we contain and soothe it, for what we can name and identify holds less charge than a nameless experience.
Here’s my definition of anxiety:
Anxiety is a feeling of dread, agitation, or foreboding associated with a danger that does not exist in the present moment. It can also be defined as a general and pervasive sense of dis-ease without an identified source. Anxiety, while often experienced in the body, is a head state that keeps its prisoners trapped in the realm of unproductive and fear-based thinking. Anxiety keeps you on high alert, and at its core lies the belief that you’re not OK, that you’ll never be OK, and that you’re not safe physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Anxiety and trust are mutually exclusive.
Anxiety is the catchall diagnosis du jour. Nearly everyone I know who has been sifted and sorted through the mainstream medical and psychological systems has been diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder. And it’s not that mainstream doctors and therapists are wrong: Most people are, indeed, suffering from anxiety, and the official criteria that qualify someone as having an anxiety disorder—as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known in psychological circles as the DSM)—is very close to the definition I shared above. While I agree with most components of the psychologically accepted definition of anxiety, where I diverge is in how I understand and work with it. I don’t see it as a “disorder” at all, for when we refer to anxiety as a disorder, we label ourselves with the stamp of “problem” and fail to recognize the profound opportunity for awakening that approaching anxiety from a mindset of respect invites. When we see anxiety as evidence of something “wrong” we miss the wisdom, the metaphors, and the opportunities for growth encased in its symptoms.
Again, as commonplace as the word anxiety is in today’s world, many people don’t know what the thoughts, feelings, and sensations are that indicate anxiety. (See the box “Manifestation of Anxiety.”) And that lack of understanding leads to more anxiety. If someone had told me, the night I ended up in the ER after my first panic attack, that I was suffering from anxiety, it would have saved me months of agony—on top of the initial agony of trying to figure out what was wrong with me.
Of course, there was nothing wrong with me; my soul had just brilliantly sent me the message through the messenger of panic that it was time to begin the process of individuating and breaking through the layers of my conditioned self. I wouldn’t have expected the ER doctor to say, “Welcome, you’ve just entered your dark night of the soul.” But if he had sent me on my way with information about what was happening, it would have been easier for me to arrive at the why.
The first key to unlocking anxiety is to make a conscious shift from protecting against your pain, pushing it away, and hating it to becoming curious about your inner world. This is not a one-time shift, but a daily, if not hourly, reset—a reminder of setting the compass of your intention to the dial of curiosity. In order to do this, it’s essential to understand that the initial thought—be it “What if I don’t love my partner?” or “What if I hurt my baby?” or “What if I have a terminal illness?”—is the distress flare; it’s your inner self sounding the alarm bell. It’s all the parts of you that you swept into the basement of your psyche—the messy, dark parts that struggle with uncertainty and lack of control, clamoring for your attention. It has become overcrowded down there, and it’s time they come out. If you take the thoughts at face value instead of becoming curious about the deeper messages, you will miss the opportunity for healing. But when you recognize the thought as an alarm bell, you can become curious about the places inside that need your attention.
For example, a coaching client scheduled a session to talk about her conflict around moving back to her home country with her husband and six-month-old baby or staying in the United States. The recurring thought, which sounded like We should move back, otherwise my daughter will grow up to be a horrible human being, had been elevated to a place of obsession where it dominated her thoughts, night and day, and was causing an immense amount of anxiety and aloneness. Taken at face value, her conflict seemed reasonable enough: She wanted her daughter to be raised around her extended community—her mother, sisters, and cousins—the way she herself had been raised. Instead, she was raising her daughter in the isolation of a big city.
But when a question becomes obsessive and fear-based, as evidenced by the fear that her daughter would grow up to be a horrible person if they didn’t move home, we know we’re in the realm of anxiety—and that the question itself carries storehouses of gold that need our attention. If we try to answer the question—making lists of pros and cons, asking people for advice, obsessively thinking about it—we remain caught in our heads. We not only miss the deeper wisdom about ourselves that is waiting to be gleaned, but we also eclipse the opportunity to find true direction based on deeper knowing. As Einstein famously said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it”—meaning that when we try to find an “answer” about an anxiety-related question from an anxious place, we only create more anxiety.
For the first part of the session, I encouraged my client to take her focus off the presenting question. This was difficult to do, since she had been perseverating on the question for months, so she had developed well-worn neural pathways in her brain that reinforced the message that answering it was a matter of life and death. This is how anxiety works: It hooks into a question or theme like a dog with a bone, and you become hell-bent on answering it in the belief that if you could only answer this one question, you would find peace.
But as we spiraled in and dropped down out of the realm of thoughts, my client began to make connections. She could see that the thought had taken on mythic proportions the moment she got pregnant—as often happens in transitions—and she could see many areas embedded in the thought that needed her attention. These included her grief about being far from home; a layer of sadness that she had moved away 10 years earlier to preserve her sense of self; the longing to return home as a metaphor for her longing to return to her internal home as she made sense of some painful aspects of her childhood; her grief about leaving her daughter to go back to work; and more. Once she attended to these areas, she could make a decision based on clarity instead of frantic anxiety. Once the messages encased in anxiety are discovered, the initial thought dissolves and clarity is achieved.
Become Curious by Noticing and Naming
Begin by taking 15 to 20 minutes to write down what anxiety feels like and how it manifests for you. Be curious! Remind yourself that anxiety is not your enemy but your messenger, and begin to inquire what messages it wants to deliver.
The first step toward breaking free from anxiety is to notice when it appears, and then name how it shows up for you. To encourage the mindset of curiosity, ask yourself questions like: Where do I feel anxiety in my body? What thoughts or themes are connected to my anxiety now and in the past? What is my first memory of anxiety? How was my sensitivity and then my anxiety handled by my caregivers as a young person?
Every time an anxious thought or feeling arises, name it out loud by saying, “Anxiety. That’s an intrusive thought.” If you can, make notes throughout the day when you notice your anxiety. The notes section of your phone works well to this end, but keeping a handwritten journal is even better.
The second key element in finding healing is to learn to meet your anxiety with compassion. This means replacing the lifelong habit of responding to your difficult feelings and experiences with shame with a kinder response that allows you to be wherever you are. Given that most people received the message growing up that difficult feelings are “bad” and are to be ignored, shamed, or silenced, this isn’t an easy task. But for now, I would like to teach you one of the most effective practices for reversing the habit of pushing away unwanted feelings and meeting yourself with kindness— the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, which was introduced to this country by the American Buddhist nun Pema Chördrön.
This on-the-spot practice is very simple. Breathe in what we normally think of as “not wanted” and breathe out what’s wanted or, as Pema Chödrön teaches on her website, “When you do Tonglen on the spot, simply breathe in and breathe out, taking in pain and sending out spaciousness and relief.” What’s so powerful about this practice is that it goes against how we habitually respond to painful feelings, so when we practice it over time, we retrain our minds to accept and even welcome pain and fear (in all their manifestations).
Next, see if you can connect to the second step of Tonglen: Breathe into the pain of everyone else on the
planet who is feeling lonely, sad, disappointed, overwhelmed, and heartbroken at this very moment, and breathe out love and connection. If you think you’re the only one having a hard time with life, think again. In some strange and beautiful way, we’re all in this together, and when you can connect to the invisible web of heart-strands that connect us in pain and in beauty, something opens up inside and anxiety quiets down.
Use Meditative Questions to Help You Slow Down
The third key for healing from anxiety is to carve out time and space every day to slow down into stillness. We cannot decipher the messages of anxiety when we’re moving at light speed, for the soul moves in organic time, not technological time. When we fill every free moment with busyness, work, distractions, perpetual motion, texting, talking, listening to music, scrolling, clicking, and watching, we lose our capacity to hear and connect with our inner selves. In fact, one of the messages that anxiety brings is an alarm bell that says, “Slow down! I can’t hear myself think. I have no time for self-reflection. When I lose touch with my inner world, I don’t know who I am, and I feel anxious.” Our culture is moving faster by the day, and our souls can’t keep up.
You can slow down for a brief pause, where you engage in a mindful moment, like at a stop light when you choose to breathe deeply and notice your surroundings instead of checking your phone or changing the music. You can slow down for longer periods, like at the beginning and end of each day when you take time to journal, meditate, or simply be in quiet reflection. Part of the work of breaking free from anxiety includes positive action, like committing to the practices that I teach, and some of it includes taking time to slow down into a space of nourishing silence and literally doing nothing, like sitting next to a tree or lying in the grass without your phone in sight. In the space of stillness, the keys of curiosity and compassion constellate as allies to aid you on your journey of healing.
From a place of curiosity, ask yourself:
What happens if I take time to sit under the umbrella of a sacred moment? When, instead of taking a photo of the moment and posting it on Instagram, I listen fully to my solitude and silence until I can hear the raindrops of my soul watering my own soil?
What happens if, when I wake up in the morning—when my eyelids slowly, achingly open to meet the morning light—instead of reaching for my phone to scroll and click, I reach for the dream image that is still playing on the edges of consciousness before the image evaporates like bubbles in air?
What might happen if, at the day’s end, I pause at an open window long enough to look up into the night sky and receive the wisdom of the moonlight? What secrets might she whisper down on silver threads?
What happens is that you come face-to-face with yourself in this moment, in present time. In those brief moments of silence and solitude, you meet your pain. Yes, these are the parts of you that you’ve stuffed away because they were deemed unlovable in early years, but also, if you can dare to imagine, they are your places of light: the poem that longs to be written, the song that needs to be sung, the sweet tears of grief that are waiting to fall into your cupped hands.
The fourth key, and one that helps you shift into curiosity and develop more self-compassion, is to set the dial of your inner compass to gratitude. This means being grateful not only for the obvious blessings that abound in your life, but also for the challenges. As Brother David Steindl-Rast shares in his audio series A Grateful Heart: “Coming alive is becoming alert and aware to the thousands and thousands of blessings that we receive—even on a day on which we have to go to the dentist or on a day we are really sick.”
Become Grateful for the Gift in Anxiety
It’s through our challenges that we learn and grow the most, which means embedded in every anxious feeling or intrusive thought, hidden inside the nightmare of a panic attack and the grueling path of insomnia, are diamonds that, when properly mined, lead to healing and serenity. This can be difficult to imagine at the outset of your journey. But every course member and client I’ve worked with who has embraced this path of approaching their anxiety with the keys of curiosity, compassion, and stillness comes back to say, “I didn’t believe you when you said that I would feel grateful for my anxiety, but I really do. Meeting my anxiety in this way has brought me home to myself in ways I couldn’t begin to imagine when I was in the thick of it.” The same can be true for you.
Manifestations of Anxiety
What if I’m with the wrong partner?
What if I’ve missed my calling?
What if I hurt someone?
What if I hurt a child?
What if the world ends?
tightness in chest
antsy feeling in body—like you can’t sit still
headaches—including pressure in the head
general feeling of dis-ease
pit in stomach
compulsive rituals, including online activity, in an attempt to seek reassurance