As someone who has struggled with anxiety in the past, I can understand the overwhelming desire to want to suppress the never ending loop of anxious thoughts creating anxious feelings, leading to more anxious thoughts. It can feel like it never switches off. For those of us that have experienced anxiety for the very first time, the sudden replacement of inner calm (which we once took forgranted) with adrenaline coursing through our veins can lead even the most grounded amongst us to want to flee to anywhere safe.
After all, the anxiety cycle is commonly known as the flight or fight response. You see, evolutionarily, we have evolved as a species to be able to ward off external threats. Thousands of years ago, we may have been confronted by a lion or tiger in the jungle, and our biologically primed bodies (which have evolved through a Darwinian survival of the fittest manner) would either fight (which in the case of a tiger would be a terrible idea), or flee. Our heart rate would escalate, accompanied by dilation of our pupils. Blood would flow to our muscles and our sweat glands would be activated and we would be ready to do whatever was deemed necessary. Makes complete sense from an evolutionary perspective. We, have, after all, ascended to the top of the food chain, a prerequisite for which would have been evolution via adaptation.
Fast forward to a few thousand years later, and our brains still function in much the same manner. We still have this reptilian brain component which is conditioned to fight or flight, with an almond shaped fear center known as the amygdala, which is activated during periods of threat.
The anxiety cycle is triggered when, unbeknownst to us, our body and minds have broken down from excessive worry over a period of time (conscious or subconscious), leading to a surge of adrenaline and eventually, butterflies in our stomach, commonly referred to as a panic attack. This feeling of anxiety / panic, which would have been useful thousands of years ago, now is just a feeling generated by our lizard / reptillian brain, and we fail to understand what to do with it.
The threats now are no longer a lion or a tiger, but rather, the concerns of everyday life. What started off as one episodic surge of adrenaline and subsequent fear / panic can then quickly turn into a constant fear of the next panic attack occurring. This loop of worry about worry eventually morphs into a full blown anxiety cycle.
WHAT INITIALLY TRIGGERS ANXIETY
Overwhelming work, relationship issues, the day to day stress of managing a family (which if left untreated can ultimately become chronic), divorce, bankruptcy, illness of loved ones, the loss of someone significant, existential quarter or mid life crises, along with contemporary issues of the 24 hour news cycle, social media, FOMO (the fear of missing out) & constant comparisons can lead to a long term build up of anxious feelings, that eventually, as described above, can result in a full blown panic attack.
In more extreme cases, severe trauma or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) induced by childhood events such as rape, or later stage events such as war, can create full blown anxiety cycles.
HOW DO WE COPE WITH ANXIETY
We therefore feel compelled to get rid of this sensation. What is it serving us? Instead of getting ready to physically run, for which fear would have served us adequately, thousands of years ago in the jungle, we long for the day where this incredibly unpleasant feeling would just leave us.
For now, the fear is not priming us for physical danger. It flows through our system, we feel it, and yet we don’t know what to do with it. We resist it. We try and push the feeling away. And the more we resist, the more we fight it, the harder it appears for these uncomfortable feelings to leave our bodies. And once it has happened, we fear it will happen again. And the anxiety trigger point is born.
If we were initially feeling anxious when hanging out in a shopping mall, many of us will avoid shopping malls, fearing that another anxiety / panic attack will ensure. If we felt a surge of anxiety during exercise, we will avoid exercising, or driving, or whatever activity we may have been engaged in when the first surge of panic had arisen in our bodies.
ASSOCIATING A LOCATION OR AN EVENT WITH ANXIETY IS FAULTY
But to associate the anxiety with the location is faulty. What we are really afraid of is the sensation of fear / anxiety returning. Anxious about being anxious. We may even know this from a logical, conscious stand point. But on a subconscious level, we are fearful. And we all know that our subconscious mind generates reactions from past events – it is memory learned and imprinted.
And unfortunately, the more our conscious mind feeds our subconscious with the belief that this venue / event / location is a threat, the more we believe it, and the stronger the imprint becomes.
QUESTIONING THE ‘I’
So how do we break this cycle? The belief that we are an entity called ‘I’ is what leads to this repeated cycle of suffering. When we refer to ‘I’, we are actually believing that we are separate from that which is happening in our lives.
The ‘I’, while great as a reference point, often becomes a source of suffering, as we choose to narrate our lives through this ‘I’. So, in the case of anxiety, instead of allowing these feelings to come and go, we act as if we are separate from our body. “ ‘I’ should not be feeling this way”. “ ‘I’ wish these feelings would just go away”.
This dualistic identification as separate self is what creates further suffering, as we refused to remain in the present moment and accept these feelings, as uncomfortable as they may be, to pass through us.
While this above concept may sound entirely abstract, it can be reframed in a way that appears significantly more manageable. It helps bring us to the root cause of anxiety. When fear / panic first arises in is, it is simply the feeling of fear / panic, as overwhelming, unpleasant or uncomfortable as it may be.
But the addition of our narration of this feeling, and our desire to make these feelings go away through the ‘I’, is what truly strengthens the anxiety response. And hence, the anxiety loop is born, one which seems incredibly hard to break out of.
ACCEPTING ALL ANXIOUS THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS
So how do we break out of this desire to suppress these uncomfortable feelings. We have to (as paradoxically difficult as it sounds) simply let them be. Let the uncomfortable feelings, with any associated thoughts, exist and pass. The trick is to not want them to pass (as this is the mind’s way of proving to itself that the presence of these thoughts and feelings are still important).
We have to fully embrace the feelings. There may be a resistance to the feelings that come and go. Embrace the resistance as well. What we want to refrain from is adding a secondary feeling of anxiety or panic to these already uncomfortable feelings.
They are emotions that have been bottled up in us, that have ultimately needed a release. The desire to want to make them instantly vanish is what exacerbates tension within the body, further building up the internal energy that leads to more anxiety, and more panic.
But a simple allowing of what arises – now that can be liberating – if, it is not done with the aim to feel liberated, but rather, paradoxically, to allow ourselves to feel the feeling all the way through. Much like success becomes the by product of focusing on the work, liberation becomes the by product of allowing the feeling to be, to accept it through and through. At the core of it. To feel the feeling from inside out. To not resist any further. To not want to create further narrative around it. To simply let it be.
THE GIFT THAT ANXIETY GIVES US
We have been conditioned (and it is almost human nature) to reject uncomfortable feelings. To consciously and subconsciously want to reject that which feels bad, and embrace that which feels good. Ultimately though, having anxiety teaches us to accept all that we feel. And that is the greatest gift that anxiety can give us. To truly accept all that we feel, without adding extra energy or intensity to how we are feeling. Whether it be envy, hatred, greed, shame, guilt or fear – all negative emotions should be felt through and through. As should positive emotions of joy, happiness and excitement.
And when we let all emotions come and go, we ultimately realize that we are at once both what we feel, and greater than what we feel. We can be allowed to feel what we feel, while not ultimately getting lost in it. And that, is where true freedom is found.