Anxiety

Surviving 2020, One Panic Attack at a Time

Learning to be present, even when we don't like the present.

Posted Oct 31, 2020

Wow, 2020! Our year of anxiety. Many of us are walking around with a sense of trepidation, if not abject fear, in our bellies, and brains. Sometimes it feels like there’s so much to be afraid of, so much on the line right now, that there’s literally no way to be OK. 

So, what are we to do with all this anxiety? When the new normal is anxious, when living with a constant sense of fear is just how it is, can we, also, feel peaceful and even well (without being delusional or in denial)?

While it may not be what we want to hear, the only way through our anxiety is through it. In order to ease our anxiety, we have to stop running from it and actually experience it. 

Amped up on caffeine, I had spent the morning busying myself with one task after another. With a hyper-zealous, Virgo-style efficiency, I was getting an inordinate amount done, which was good, but I could also sense a kind of franticness in myself. As productive as I felt, I also knew that it wouldn’t have been possible to stop moving, stop getting stuff done, stop accomplishing, stop checking the boxes, just plain stop. I could tell that I was running, internally and externally. And so, after 400 years of spiritual practice, lo and behold, it occurred to me to stop and ask myself what I was running from.

When I asked myself this question, however, I was careful not to frame it as an intellectual quandary. Such an inquiry can easily become an invitation to describe (to ourselves) all the things we’re anxious about, to mentally regurgitate the list of scary things and remind ourselves why we have a right to be afraid. But ultimately, this is not helpful, not in any deep sense. We already know what we’re afraid of and why. Naming it may be helpful for our mind, but it doesn’t usually make us feel any better at a gut level. 

When we become aware of the fact that we’re running from something inside ourselves, when we feel like we can’t stop or desperately don’t want to stop doing or "tasking," that’s our cue that we really do need to stop. We have to (compassionately) override the instinctive part of our brain that’s desperately trying to keep us away from what scares us. 

My advice is the last thing on earth you want to hear. I get it. I spent years, even decades, running, literally and figuratively, moving and doing, accomplishing anything and everything. I got all sorts of accolades for my running, but my real work was in learning to stop. That is, to get inside here and feel its edges, no matter what here contains. 

When we feel the anxiety of what’s happening in our world these days, we can invite ourselves, albeit counterintuitively, directly into the experience of what we're calling anxiety. Not our story or narrative on it, but the experience itself, what it feels like in our senses. We can literally say to ourselves, feel this, feel its edges, feel its uncomfortableness. Simultaneously, we can give ourselves permission to not have to understand it, figure it out, solve it, make it feel better, or make it go away. But simply to get inside it, step into it like a wet suit you wear scuba diving.

Maybe it’s all my years of being a serious athlete, of pushing my body and mind past what felt possible, but there’s something challenging (in a good way) and even exciting about experiencing something hard, about getting inside the experience of uncomfortableness. There’s a real payoff when we do hard things and stretch outside our comfort zone. Dropping into our actual experience, whether it’s anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, whatever it is, can in fact be a fascinating and beneficial exercise.

And here’s the thing: When we stop running and drop into whatever is here under all the running; when we let ourselves travel into the eye of the storm and the center of our experience, remarkably, we feel better. It’s the paradox of all paradoxes: When we allow ourselves to experience our anxiety, we feel less anxious (and that’s true for most everything). It's as if the anxiety benefits or is soothed by our own presence. 

But, I repeat, experiencing it is not telling ourselves about it, listing its causes, or trying to solve it. Experiencing it is not blaming ourselves or anyone else for it. Experiencing it is not collapsing into our emotional storylines about it. It is just (and yes, I’m laughing as I write “just”) a matter of inhabiting the experience itself, getting inside it, and if it works for you to imagine, feeling its edges. 

So, give it a whirl. The next time you feel anxious or any other unwanted emotion, try thinking of it as a challenge. If you’re like me, you can make it a kind of athletic or spiritual challenge, like climbing Mount Everest. Instead of distracting yourself from the emotion, do the least intuitive thing possible: Stop and drop into the experience itself, lean into the feeling you're running from. Feel what it’s like, get inside its edges. Wear it. Hey, if the experiment is a disaster and experiencing it proves worse than running from it, you can always peel off the wetsuit and put your sneakers back on (and unsubscribe from my blog). Let me know how it goes.