Last weekend we held a new workshop at Spa Road on the subject of Anxiety.
Running new courses is quite an anxiety-provoking task, so I was a little nervous when I met all the participants for the first time. But we were in the warm and gilded splendour of the Bermondsey Shrine room with its massive coloured Buddha beaming down on us, so I felt like we were working in a positive field of energy.
Animals seem to exist in a state of present moment awareness
Anxiety is a ubiquitous human experience. As far as we know animals don’t experience it because animals don’t have an ongoing sense of existence through time. It seems human beings are the only ones who have the capability to imagine ourselves in the past and the future. This is, of course, the most amazing thing. It allows us to plan ahead and build St. Paul’s Cathedral and it allows us to think back and remember the beauty of the Renaissance. However, the sense of time has its downsides.
Animals seem to exist in a state of present moment awareness. They don’t as far as we know, have a sense that in the future they will die. They live for the moment. Humans, in contrast, have the ability to project that fatal and terminal event, death, quite vividly. We also are able to plan to avoid it. And we remember the events of the past equally vividly.
This ability to imagine the past and the future and make assumptions about the present has profound consequences for us when we think about anxiety. Let’s consider fear. Fear is a natural physiological experience for all living beings. Even single-cell amoebas recoil from what is toxic. The sweaty palms, tight breathing, constricted stomach that arise in the fear response are the correct bodily experience for someone who wants to run away from a dangerous thing.
Anxiety is a response to the internal imagination of danger. ie. thoughts.
We could define fear as the correct physiological response to external danger. So if we see a bus hurtling towards us the shockwave of adrenalin and cortisol flooding our system allows us to leap out of the way.
Anxiety has the same physiological fear response – tight breathing, churning stomach, tunnel-vision, worse-case-scenario thinking – but it is in response to the internal imagination of danger. ie. thoughts.
When you consider that the human mind can imagine the beginning and end of the universe and the edge of our solar system and the inside of an atom, you can also see that we can imagine a lot of potential dangers. This is the unique quality of anxiety. It is often chronic and ongoing because we can imagine almost infinite amounts of danger.
The most fascinating thing about anxiety is to realise that the pure physical symptoms of it are not wrong. They are not pathological. In fact, they are the correct response to an imagined danger. That’s not to say that they are pleasant. Increased heart rate, tightened breathing, lack of bowel control, sweaty palms, catastrophic thinking – these are all nasty experiences but they are absolutely appropriate if there is a real and present danger. They are meant to be unpleasant as a spur to make you move.
The physical state of anxiety is not an anomaly
This is the first step in working skilfully with anxiety: to recognise that the physical state of anxiety is not an anomaly, it’s not a sickness or a disease. It is the correct response and should be honoured as such.
Sitting in the middle of an ongoing panic attack is not at all easy – even for a mindfulness practitioner – but understanding that the physical sensations are not the problem is the beginning of working skilfully with anxiety.
So what is the problem?
Well, as I mentioned above, anxiety is the physical response to an imagined danger. Our constant struggle to avoid the unpleasant physical sensations of anxiety results in a form of defence.
We can think of it like this.
THOUGHT —-> ANXIETY ——> DEFENCE
So for example, we might remember an email that we meant to send and forgot. There is a brief bolt of anxious chemistry in the body – we feel our stomach flip – and we leap up and send it, offering apologies for its delay.
That’s a fairly conscious and positive example. The anxiety is short-lived and it spurs us into sensible action.
However, what if our thought is a little less obvious and our defence more complex?
For example, we might be heading off to a party and feeling anxious. There is a vague and unconscious thought at work here: “I have nothing to say”. This though triggers anxiety which we are are vaguely and unpleasantly aware of, and when we reach the party we head to the bar and drink three glasses of white wine very quickly.
All we do is spend endless energy enacting the defence and fighting the anxiety
Here the wine counteracts the anxiety (it’s a muscle relaxant) but does not touch the triggering thought. When the hangover kicks in the next morning and you remember all the inappropriate things you said, the thought is only confirmed.
Sometimes, the defence is really ingrained and we have buried the original thought so deeply that it doesn’t even register. All we do is spend endless energy enacting the defence and fighting the anxiety.
For example, I might feel that I am not good enough. This original thought might have stuck in our head when I was six and been indirectly watered by cruel comments at school, thoughtless actions in the family and social reinforcement. It’s buried pretty deep. It makes me feel anxious in a chronic low-level way. To counteract it from childhood on I have always tried to be more and more perfect. I put thousands of unconscious hours into perfecting myself every which way I can in a repeated attempt to dampen down the feeling of anxiety, but inevitably, no matter how hard I try, the anxiety creeps back.
Why? Because the anxiety is not connected to the defence. And actually the more we do the defence the further away from the cause of the anxiety we come.
It’s like the tale of the Sufi mystic fool who scatters breadcrumbs outside his house. When asked by a stranger why he does this, he says “to keep the tigers away”. The stranger is astonished: “But we don’t have tigers in this part of the world”. And the wise fool replies: “You see, it works!” Mindfulness proposes a crazy thing:
Notice the ‘dirty discomfort’ of those defensive manoeuvres
Sit in your anxiety, Really inhabit the physical experience and see that you can tolerate it. Even, become interested in it. Don’t indulge the defence. Notice the ‘dirty discomfort’ of those defensive manoeuvres, be they addictions like booze or drugs, compulsive behaviours like sex addiction or over-tidying or subtle things like always working too hard, caring for others too much, trying to be too perfect. Let the anxiety take you to the seed thought.
Sometimes, there is a magic in mindfulness that is hard to describe. When I say sit in the anxiety and let it speak to you, that is exactly what can happen. Once we give up the defence and sit, tolerant, inside the physical unpleasantness of anxiety it can open up like an itchy flower and reveal the irritant that has lain underneath for decades. “I am not good enough”, “I am unloveable”, ‘I will be abandoned”, “I will get sick and die”, “Sex and pleasure are dangerous”.
Whatever our seed thought might be, when it reveals itself, treat it like a precious thing. It’s like a secret from the depth that has been kept in the mud for years and years. Don’t rush to get rid of it. Sit with its charge and the ramifications of its message.
We will always experience anxiety in our lives because we imagine things good and bad
Sometimes you will see where it comes from, sometimes it’s not important. But it is important to cherish that thought and allow it to be fully known.
We will always experience anxiety in our lives because we always (hopefully) continue to imagine things good and bad, but the misperception that the defence against anxiety helps is the thing that keeps it in place. Understanding how the itch arises is powerful stuff. As that 19th Century celebrant of anxiety, Soren Kierkegaard put it in 1884:
“The person that learns to be anxious in the right way, has learned the ultimate”
I’d love to know your thoughts about anxiety. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!
Find out more about The Mindsprings School. A series of courses created by Alistair to help you live a happier life.