Letting go of anxiety

I have always struggled with generalized anxiety. Over the years, I have learned many strategies to help manage my anxiety.

Thich Nhat Hanh would encourage us to befriend parts of ourselves that we didn’t like. He suggested that we to treat this part like a younger sibling who is upset and open our arm and comfort them. Another time, he suggested saying to this anxious part, “Hello old friend, come sit with me.”

The poet Rumi wrote “a joy, a depression...comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all!” I learned that this approach didn’t work if you were doing this to try to get rid of these emotions, and I learned strategies to be with anxiety when it arose. Though there was improvement over time, my anxiety persisted.

Several years ago I flew out to Salt Lake City to visit my sister and my father. The anxiety started to rise the day before the flight home: my boarding number on Southwest was the last group to board. I slept poorly because I didn’t trust my alarm clock and it was an early morning flight. I forced breakfast down even though my stomach was a bit uneasy. As we left the house, my sister had to stop and get gas and then she missed the freeway exit for the airport!

Finally we got to the airport! I walked inside to the longest security line I had ever seen. I tried not to be anxious and then tried to breathe with and through my anxiety. I ran to the gate where my plane boarded, to find out that it was delayed by 30 minutes. Whew. Now I could relax.

I began to work on lesson plans for my upcoming college classes. I was deeply immersed in my planning when I heard that group A was boarding. Bam! The anxiety flew into gear—my suitcase was open and I had several files out. I felt my blood pressure rising, and I started to cram stuff into my suitcase and backpack.

A part of me suddenly said, “Stop! You won’t actually be boarding for 10 minutes.” Then another part said, “why don’t you practice what you teach—bring mindfulness to this anxiety, to the sensations and energy in the body, to the thoughts, and to the emotions.” So I did.

I felt the tension in my shoulders, my neck, and my face. I felt this wild energy coursing through my arms. I felt my breathing—short, shallow, choppy. And I stayed with the physical sensations and energy until they subsided.

When I noticed thoughts, e.g., “I hate this” and noticed emotions—fear, frustration, irritation—I acknowledged with kindness those parts of me that were anxious.

I sensed snippets of memories from my childhood when my father was raging. I had felt for many years that a major part of my anxiety connected to a fear of my father during his frequent raging. Now I was feeling fragments of those memories.

After more time, my breathing slowed down, the tenseness in my body subsided, and I put away my items into my suitcase and backpack more slowly than I had before. Then I got in line and onto the plane.

On the next airplane trip with my wife, she noticed that I was much less anxious than I have usually been. I have made many trips since then. The anxiety continues to go down. Occasionally, it emerges. When it does, I can generally simply recognize it, befriend it with curiosity and non-contentiousness, and it either evaporates or subsides significantly.

A friend of mine, who has been practicing mindfulness meditation for years, recently told me a similar story of the value of bringing direct experience to what are called afflictive emotions, that is, emotions that are afflicting us. When her beloved dog died, her grief was almost unbearable, and she found she could not stop crying. At one point, she brought mindfulness to her suffering--feeling the grief and sadness in her body. After some time, while the grief and sadness was still strong, it was suddenly bearable.

There are some important notes about the practice of mindfulness with afflictive emotions.

It is important to allow oneself to feel the feelings, that is, to directly experience the emotions in and on the body—for example, tightness in the chest, a ‘pit’ in the stomach, the tears falling down the cheeks—as well as the energy, for example, the rush of energy coursing through the body with anger.

The practice is about learning how to be with these deep emotions as opposed to doing this to get rid of the unwanted emotions. We are deeply conditioned to push away uncomfortable feelings, and it takes some experience with mindfulness to move from meditating to get rid of unwanted emotions and thoughts to meditating to learn to be with them.

Applying the metaphor of a tsunami, sometimes the feelings are just too powerful to feel directly and in the moment, especially if one is new to mindfulness. In such cases, it makes sense to back off, for example, talking with other people,

It often takes time to let go of old habits, deeply conditioned behavior, especially traumas or issues that clearly go back to childhood. Jack Kornfield, a well-known American meditation teacher, has talked about the benefit of psychotherapy to work with deep-seated issues. I personally have benefited from therapy in dealing with some of my long-standing challenges like anxiety, resentment, and never feeling ‘good enough.’