May 5, 2017

How to Master Being Calm When You Have Anxiety


"My biggest dream is to calm down."

This post I saw on Tumblr is funny, because it seems exaggerated, but it's actually spot on. It might not be true for all of us, but I think a lot of people can identify with it in some way.

Especially those of us who have anxiety.

I work on myself every day, so I can be as calm and peaceful as I can be. If one has peace, what else do they need, right?

Relaxation is not easy, not even to the average human being. There is always something to be tense about. To be honest, I think my anxiety has helped me a lot to calm down. I'm a walking oxymoron, I know. But the fact is that having an anxious brain has allowed me to understand how anxiety operates. And once you understand how anxiety works, you also see how you can calm down.

Anxiety is like the ghosts in Super Mario--as long as you don't look at it, it haunts you, but the moment you turn around to face it, it runs away in fear.

So here is what helped me toward the dream of calming down:

1. Accept yourself. Darkness and all.

Anxiety is not something to defeat, it is something to learn to live with. And one can live a full and peaceful life with it. There's nothing to get rid of or suppress. Only to understand and react to.

One of my favorite people ever, Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, has said,

"Our darkness is contributive in the same way that manure is essential to the rose. We must learn to accept our own darkness if we want to overcome our own neurosis. We cannot change anything unless we accept it. I myself am the enemy who must be loved."

Whatever your darkness might be, you have one. We all have. Turning away from it, denying its existence is counterproductive. The "if I ignore it, maybe it will go away" attitude doesn't work. It only makes it stronger, like the ghosts in Super Mario.

So what can we do instead of turning away? What would Carl Jung do? Alan Watts said the following:

"[Jung] was the sort of man who could feel anxious and afraid and guilty without being ashamed of feeling this way. In other words, he understood that an integrated person is not a person who has simply eliminated the sense of guilt or the sense of anxiety from his life--who is fearless and wooden and kind of sage of stone. He is a person who feels all these things, but has no recriminations against himself for feeling them."

There you go. If Carl Jung said it's okay, then it's okay.

2. Be in the now.

In our minds, we tend to be everywhere except for now. If you have an anxious brain, like I do, then you are probably in the future most of the time. In the very near future, to be exact, in the "I'm about to die" kind of future.

The anxious brain is scared to death. And it grabs onto every little sign that can validate its suggestion that its fear will come true. "You feel a tingle in your throat? Yep, that's it. All's about to end. I told you."

But if you take a step back from the future in your head, the death threat becomes a simple tingle in the throat. And that is all it will ever be. As Thich Nhat Hanh said,

"This is it. I have arrived in this moment. And the only moment is now. This is it."

That next thing you are so afraid of, the thing you are sure is going to happen--it's not going to happen. It will forever remain in your head. So come back to the present moment instead. It's nice here.

3. Imagine your anxiety as a person.

Therapists use this method often, and I find it to be very helpful as well. Seeing other people's issues is much easier than seeing our own.

I imagine my own anxiety like an old lady. She's very haggard, poor thing, and she is afraid of everything. Her life basically revolves around the constant fear of death. She is convinced every day, that this is the day when she will finally die. But then nothing ends up happening, because she's fine. She not that old. Still, every day, she waits for death, and she doesn't do it with grace or peace, oh no. She is terrified of everything, and is convinced that the world should revolve around keeping her safe. Nothing else interests her.

Such a sad existence, don't you think? I'm very sure that I don't want to be like her. So whenever my anxious brain starts talking and I'm debating if I should listen to it, I just bring the old lady to mind. Do I want to listen to her? I really, really don't.

So I do the opposite of what she says. She's a bit paranoid, you know. Believing her would be like believing aliens are about to land and take me away. That, for some reason, my brain doesn't believe. Seeing that what my brain does believe is just as ridiculous makes things clearer.

4. Focus your attention carefully.

What we do with our attention matters the most. When we are anxious, what we are focusing on is making us anxious. We focus on the thought that we are afraid of happening and we scan ourselves or the world for evidences to support this thought. Like we did with the throat example in the second point.

Once we understand that this thought is coming from the haggard old lady, we can move our attention from it. "This is it," the present moment is all that we will ever have to deal with. So we can move our attention to it.

Our attention has to rest on something. Usually our focus is on our thoughts. If we are anxious, the focus is definitely on our thoughts. That's why people love movies, books, games, music--they distract them from their thoughts. They allow them to "turn off" for a while. But as we have established in the first point, ignoring the darkness will not make it go away.

Distancing ourselves will not solve the problem. Our attention will just bounce back when that movie ends. We have to understand everything we have talked about in the previous three points in order for us to be able to move our attention.

So what can we move our attention to if not our thoughts? I don't know about you, but I want to be able to calm down without the help of any sort of distraction. The dream of calming down is sitting in the middle of chaos or in a completely empty room and still have to ability to stay calm.

Thoughts are not real. The goal is to focus on what is real, which is reality.

About attention, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote beautifully:

"Tea is an act complete in its simplicity. When I drink tea, there is only me and the tea. The rest of the world dissolves. There are no worries about the future. No dwelling on past mistakes. Tea is simple: loose-leaf tea, hot pure water, a cup. I inhale the scent, tiny delicate pieces of the tea floating above the cup. I drink the tea, the essence of the leaves becoming a part of me. I am informed by the tea, changed. This is the act of life, in one pure moment, and in this act the truth of the world suddenly becomes revealed: all the complexity, pain, drama of life is a pretense, invented in our minds for no good purpose. There is only the tea, and me, converging."

We can focus on whatever is around us in this moment. When we drink our tea, we can be there to drink our tea. When we eat our food, we can be there to eat our food. When we walk, we can be there to feel our feet touching to ground. To feel the air on our skin. To see the world around us. Even when we feel anxious and take an uncomfortable breath, we can be there for that breath. 

Anxiety is very introspective. It wants us to keep checking ourselves, to constantly stand on guard and search for evidence of a possible doom. It doesn't let us look outside and live. By placing our attention on the world and on the people around us, we break it's cycle.

Anxiety is a strange kind of death--it cannot hold us if we decide to live anyway. And that's exactly what makes us so brave and just plain awesome--being afraid, but being who we want to be anyway.

"Grief for a future not yet lived is the hardest kind of grief to bear." - from my novel Forgotten Beast

1 comment:

  1. I really appreciate your sharing exactly how these strategies have helped you take care of yourself and manage anxiety. i always love hearing these stories and hope more readers will share their experiences.

    Lung - e-counseling.com

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