Anxiety can lead you to what you need to heal
“Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our hearts, we still cling to anything – anager, anxiety, or possessions, we cannot be free.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering Into Peace, Joy and Liberation”
Anxiety, in contrast to Depression, which concerns the past, is a fear about a future event. We essentially feel threatened at one level or another. Our perception of our fear is going to be filtered through the lens of our past experiences. For example, holding a deadly snake is going to mean death to one, but not to another, depending one’s past experiences. It is important to understand also, our brains don’t recognise any difference between fear and excitement, it is our perception that tells the brain what direction to send the signals. The great thing is that we can, at anytime, change how we perceive fear purely by thinking differently about the things that scare us. However, this usually means changing the habits and patterns established in our subconscious.
For the sake of our understanding and application into our reality construct, I divide fear into two categories; notional and existential fear (listen to the episode about “Fear”). The reality of the fear is not how we experience or perceive it, but rather the acuteness of the danger that is notional or real.
Notional fear is when there is no clear nor imminent danger, the threat is conjured up in the mind. When we experience anxiety of the unknown, e.g. receiving an email for our boss with the subject, “We need to talk”, we are making assumptions based on our previous experiences, or experiences of others that have deeply influenced us. When we come up against a trigger that reveals our notional fears, we have an opportunity to ask, “Where does this come from?”, and then the subconscious is compelled to give us an answer, which means we can start healing this aspect of ourselves. The answer might not come right away, so continue to be open to receiving it. The emotions that generate anxiety has their root in an Original Sensitising Event or Core Wounding. The threat is that we would ultimately die; if I don’t behave and my parents shun me, I can’t sustain myself and I will die. There are a number of notions and assumptions in that statement, but to the brain and our nervous systems, it is as real as anything.
This is a fear that comes up for an immediate threat to your physical existence; lethal violence, attack by an animal, accident, or some other experience where you could potentially die. In these situations we typically sink to our lowest level of preparedness and training. Good training and preparation will allow us to be desensitised to the fear and allow us to prioritise and act in a way that has the maximum opportunity for us to achieve our objectives, whether that is saving others, eliminating the threat, saving ourselves, or something else. We essentially are able to control the fight, flight or freeze response that would otherwise be automatic. In these situations, if the threat persists, it is a natural impulse to push down any emotions that come up and when we do this for long enough we can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Interestingly, the emotions can be stored in both our minds as well as our physical bodies, so the emotion can be purely a physical experience, such as a tick, spasm, shaking, or something else, without any conscious mental response to it.
If we are looking to work in a stressful and threatening environment, e.g. an emergency room, fire brigade, military, or something similar, you will train in environments that will mimic the real world scenario as closely as possible so that your mind knows what to expect. However, that doesn’t deal with notional anxiety. For this we need practices that help us to interrupt and disrupt our patterns and habits:
- Practice grounding
- Approach our past, present and future experiences with compassion, acceptance, forgiveness and gratitude
- Observing our experiences from the perspective of our awareness, i.e. moving out of our heads (link to meditation)
- Observing and controlling our breath through the nose, using our diaphragm to breathe.
- Using methods like Wim Hof or Tummo to desensitise our bodies and minds from stress.
Breathing as part of regulating our autonomic nervous system has been utterly undervalued by modern medicine. Ancient texts and traditions all point to it as central to our health, as do many research studies up until the 1950’s when psycho-pharma started to make it on to the market in a big way. In recent years breathing has come back into focus and a book I found most useful and interesting on the topic is “Breath” by James Nestor. The simple reasons that we breathe trough our noses using our diaphragm are that our noses have a complicated system of channels that filter the air preventing many particles and pathogens to reach the lungs. Breathing with our diaphragms is directly connected with our vagus nerves, which is the main part of our para-sympathetic nervous systems (rest and digest), so if we take slow breaths with our diaphragms we regulate this system and thus bring down the trigger of our sympathetic nervous systems (fight, flight or freeze), lowering our heart rate, stopping the adrenal response, etc. and gives us back control.
If we find ourselves in a situation where our anxiety has been triggered, here are some techniques that we can deploy:
- Using the observing our experiences from our awareness technique to take ourselves out of our heads.
- Control our breathing as described above.
- Box breathing; imagine we are drawing a box in front of us, drawing the first vertical line you breathe in during 4 seconds, then we cross over holding our breath for four seconds, then drop down exhaling for four seconds, and finally crossing back over holding for four seconds, repeat as necessary.
- Grounding visualisation as described above.
Some key questions to ask ourselves to direct our thoughts when the emotions come up could be:
- What is my perception of my situation?
- Is my perception serving me at this moment?
- Are there other likely perceptions to the one I conjured up that could be equally valid?
- How can I flip the script on my experience to serve myself in a better way?
Our emotions we can’t control, we can only control the thoughts, the words and the actions that are directed after the emotion comes up. However, we will be very challenged to control any of these if we remain in our heads, because by the time the emotion has reached our heads the reaction has already kicked off. The only way for us to sustainably deal with our emotions is to experience them and to heal the aspects of ourselves that are the trigger points, i.e. our core wounding (The Infinity Life has programmes to help deal with this). Anxiety is a feeling that is caused by the perpetuation of our emotions through our words, our thoughts and our actions, so control them and you control your anxiety.
Disclaimer: I am not a certified medical or psychological professional and do recommend you to always seek out the help of a professional if you are having a challenging time. If you need to talk to someone urgently, please contact your local suicide prevention hotline. Any of the statements in this article are based on my own research and experiences and should not be construed as medical advice or diagnosis.