Healthy Living

Lessons in Coping with Anxiety

I’m on the balcony playing with pegs. Not quite two years old. Out of nowhere a bomb drops from the sky and explodes nearby. It’s a huge shock to my little heart. I scream. My sympathetic nervous system injects me with adrenaline and cortisol, propelling me like a rocket into my father’s arms.

I grow up in a war zone.

Living in war is like being in a relationship with an emotionally volatile person. You spend years walking on eggshells, not knowing when they’re going to blow up next.  I’ve experienced both. Growing up in war and being in a relationship with a volatile person. Gradually, and without my awareness, I lose my sense of safety.

Even long after I leave the war zone and that relationship ends, my anxiety remains. Just like a piece of toilet paper that gets stuck to your shoe long after you’ve left the restroom, anxiety follows me around.  And even though the world shows me everyday that it is a gentle and safe place that’s full of love, my body still expects everything to go to hell without warning. When I look back on my life I can see how this stuck-fear turns me into a tiny Anxiety Mouse.

As an Anxiety Mouse I’m afraid to leave a job that doesn’t utilize my full potential because I don’t know what will happen if I do.

As an Anxiety Mouse, I’m afraid to ask the woman I like if she’s interested too, because I fear the sting of ridicule or rejection.

As an Anxiety Mouse I abort many potential friendships because I don’t trust people’s intentions.

And so when I finally become aware of how my fear oppresses me, or how I oppress myself with my fear, I set out to transform it.

And in coping with anxiety, these are the lessons I learn.

Love Anxiety Mouse (with all your heart)

It takes me many years to even realize that I am afraid. Scientists say that when your body is used to being in a state of alert for so long, you stop noticing that it is on edge; it becomes your new normal.  In Life Unlocked, Srinivassan Pillay writes that certain brain regions involved in fear can be active without our conscious awareness. We can be afraid and just not know it.

I first notice my subliminal fear in the backseat of a coworker’s car. I’m in my mid 30s. She’s very nice and invites me to spend time with her and a friend. But for some reason my chest constricts and I want nothing more than to get out of there. Instead of berating myself for this social failure, I turn toward my fear with curiosity and unconditional self-love.

When I get home, I do a meditation prescribed for people coping with anxiety by Christopher Hansard in his book The Tibetan Art of Living.I lie on my back and close my eyes. I imagine that my breath is flowing in and out of my navel. And with every breath I feel warmer and more energized. I place my attention on my heart and I feel the anxious glow that emanates from it. It’s an icy cold, electric heat.I then imagine a miniature me lying in the center of my heart, just as Hansard instructs. She is perfectly safe and perfectly at peace. Nothing can harm her. And I sit with this perfect peace, together with my fear, for some time.

I learn from Hansard’s book that this peace is actually my inner wisdom and it is always there, accessible in the space between moments. For the ancient Tibetans, he tells me, this inner wisdom is the healer of the body and mind. In knowing how to contact this inner horizon, as he calls it, lies our ultimate healing. I now direct the image of my safe-self out of my heart and into the world. I color it with a bright, powerful light and allow it to radiate like a white sun. I let its rays permeate every aspect of my life.

Rest and let yourself receive the good feelings that come to you from doing this, Hansard writes. And I do.

I have just communicated with my sympathetic nervous system with guided imagery. I’ve brought the fear response under my sway.When I am not meditating I blast Anxiety Mouse with light and love every chance I get. Every time I notice her. Remembering the not-yet-two-year-old girl on that balcony, who was terrorized within an inch of her life, I wrap my now strong arms around the afraid parts of me and love the hell out of them.

Wherever the fear is nesting in my body, I direct love with all my heart at it. Ultimately, it’s not our technology or our medicine but our love that heals. That’s what neurosurgeon James Doty writes in his book Into the Magic Shop, and that’s a neurosurgeon talking!

How to Send Love To Your Pain   In the past I thought these ancient visualization techniques were archaic wishful thinking, now I realize they are truly medicine.

Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway   I’m sitting in the back seat of a taxi. Next to me sits the object of my affection. I’d really like to ask her out for dinner but I just can’t. I’m so tense, if I was a guitar string I would snap.

I’ve already read a dozen books on body language and nonverbal communication and I can tell I’m giving her all the wrong signals. You’re supposed to lightly touch your love interests here and there: on the arm, a little slap on the knee, maybe even a light touch on the small of the back if you’re ushering them through a doorway.

If you have hair, flick it. And you’re supposed to make meaningful and non-invasive eye contact when they speak. Ask a lot of questions. Dress to impress. Connect emotionally. Yeah, I get it. All of it. But I just can’t bring myself to put my hand on a woman I’m attracted to.

What if she feels violated? What if I come across as sleazy? What if she’s straight and I misrepresent all gay women as predatory sex fiends for all time?

So you see, I just sit there, awkward and uncomfortable. Stewing in my closed off stance, my body turned away from her. She’s talking but I’m so caught up in my own nervousness, I have no idea what she just said. Seconds later she’s out of the taxi. Gone. I just missed my chance.I go home and I’m really tempted to hate myself. What a coward. I keep replaying our time together in my head, looking for clues. Does she like me? It never occurs to me that I could have just asked.

The fastest way to deal with anxiety is to do the thing that scares you. Once you’ve done what you’re afraid of, it can’t scare you anymore. That’s because anxiety is only possible when you think about the future and about what could happen.  So feel the fear and do it anyway. This is literally the title of a best selling book by Susan Jeffers.

Jeffers teaches me to say I’ll handle it, every time I catch myself worrying about the consequences of doing something. I just keep saying it over and over again, every time Anxiety Mouse rears her fragile little head inside me.

If I keep giving all my money away, I’m going to end up homeless myself: that’s fine, I’ll handle it.

If I quit this job I’m really not cut out for, I might never be able to find something better: I’ll handle it.

What if America turns fascist and they start rounding up immigrants: I’ll handle it.

What if I go on vacation and come back to find that my startup doesn’t exist anymore: I’ll handle it.

Whatever you fear is going to happen that you’re theoretically worrying about right now, just tell yourself, I’ll handle it.

And if the worst case scenario eventuates (it almost never does), Jeffers says in another book, tell yourself I can learn from this.

I’ve just blown my last chance with this incredibly amazing woman by not asking her out. I can learn from this.

I’ve just blown the entire fuse box fixing the electrics on my motorcycle. I can learn from this.

After I finally overcome my fear of losing money and start investing in the stock market, it crashes! I can learn from this.

I do learn a tonne from that last one, actually. I realize how ridiculous money is; how easily it can be made and lost. My fear of not having enough is transformed into my knowledge that material security is an illusion.

It doesn’t make sense to continue being afraid of losing something (material security) that no one can ultimately have, does it?

Put Fear in a Larger Historical Context

My heart rate can go from 60 to 100 BPM instantly for no seemingly good reason.

The first time this happens to me, I’m in high school. I see two police officers walking towards me and I feel the fear. I do a mental check of my school uniform.

It’s a crazy thought to think that police officers are going to cite you for not having your shirt tucked in, isn’t it? They pass me without incident of course and I’m left wondering what the hell my reaction was all about.

The same thing still happens to me sometimes when I see Border Patrol officers in foreign airports. And during the 2014 Ferguson protests I break into a cold sweat when a police helicopter hovers over my house for over an hour. I’ve been in war zones, why should a police helicopter make me feel like it’s coming for me?

None of this makes sense to my logical mind. The physiological reactions happen in spite of my logic.

In search for self-understanding, I come across the concept of epigenetics. Epigenetics teaches us that we can inherit the traumatic experiences of our predecessors even up to the moment of our conception.

What this means is that what happened during the lives of my parents and their parents lives inside me too.

And so it all starts to make sense.

My grandparents had to flee their family homes, they and my parents were persecuted. They lived in constant terror, hiding from genocidal militias for decades.

Now that context is gone, but thanks to epigenetics my brain is still vigilant against those non-existent threats. I soon realize that Anxiety Mouse wants to make sure I survive in a world that no longer exists.

I take a moment to honor the experiences of my parents and their parents before them. I close my eyes and I bless the souls of the living, and the souls of those whom we have lost.

My eyes well up with tears as the fear that sits inside me takes on a new meaning. This fear is not an enemy but a precious relic from my family’s history that is asking to be acknowledged and healed.

I imagine that as I am healing my own trauma, I am also healing the trauma of my entire lineage. I feel the spirits of my grandfather, aunts, uncles and cousins who were murdered in the war and to each one of them I acknowledge the pain and terror they must have faced.

I take a moment to imagine what they would say to me and I listen for their messages.

May you be happy, may you be at peace. Thank you for your sacrifice. I promise to live the life I am given to its fullest potential.

I bless the living spirits of my mother and father.

My heart radiates tremendous love and the electric ice-cold fear transforms into a tender aching, like the pain of a fresh wound. I feel my heart opening to the unhealed traumas of my predecessors and I ask that they be released now and for all time.

Bert Hellinger, a German psychologist who invented a therapeutic methodology known as Family Constellation Work, claims that we can inherit the traumas of our predecessors and live out similar fates to them if these experiences are not brought to consciousness and resolved. He calls this phenomenon systemic entanglement.

We might even harbor a sense of unconscious loyalty to our fallen loved ones and end up steering ourselves toward similar fates in solidarity with them. Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy, a hungarian psychologist who founded family therapy, refers to this phenomenon as invisible loyalty.

My body, without my conscious awareness, makes me live out the same psychosocial distress as my predecessors. My body is motivated by unconscious love and deep family ties that live in the cells of my body. As I become aware of this dynamic the healing begins and I set out to write a new destiny for my life. One based on optimism and trust.

Take a moment to expand your awareness of that steel-cold existential fear that doesn’t seem to leave you alone. What aspects are based on your direct experience and what aspects could you have inherited?

Take a moment to acknowledge the pains and losses of your loved ones. The ones you know and the ones you don’t. Ask that they be acknowledged and healed. Surrender the pain to the greater love that governs and corrects all things.

Subliminal Fear Lives in the Unconscious Mind

I post on an online forum about a rare motorcycle part I need to repair my bike. The following day, I receive an email from a man named Steve telling me has has the part and to call him on a given number. My first thought isn’t oh, great! My first thought is is this a scam? I put the phone number into Google and sure enough, Steve is calling from a motorcycle salvage yard in Southern California.

Someone else wouldn’t have had that thought. But that kind of thought is my default mode. It’s the first thing I think in most situations. Is there a threat? How can I make sure there isn’t a threat? How can I keep myself safe?

I’ve lived with this way of thinking for so long I barely even notice it, but now that I can see my subliminal fear in action, I can also see how it’s interfering in all aspects of my life.

For one thing, I don’t trust my friends. This means I can never rely on them. And because I don’t give people the chance to be there for me, I’ve ended up with a lot of superficial relationships. Unintentionally, I have been isolating myself from others in this way for years.

Another example is that I never trust that things will work out for me, or that I might just get lucky. This means I don’t take risks and it also means that undesirable circumstances in my life are slow to change.

I realize that for drastic changes to occur in my life I need to create momentum by taking bold action. But since I’m subliminally afraid all the time, I haven’t dared to quit that stupid job.

I recognize that I need to go deep into my unconscious mind to fix this.

And I quit that stupid job.

 

 

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