Seven ways to ease your anxiety, without pills

Someone recently wrote to me asking about how to deal with anxiety. He didn’t say specifically what his anxiety was about, so I offered some general advice, which I repeat here in a slightly modified and expanded form in case it benefits others.

1. Cultivate lovingkindness

I’ve found that doing lovingkindness practice as I go about my daily affairs has a big effect on my anxiety levels. I find it’s impossible to be cultivating lovingkindness toward people and simultaneously be worrying about what they might think of me. I’m talking here not of sitting practice (which helps too) but of cultivating lovingkindness as I walk around, drive, etc. There simply isn’t the mental bandwidth available to keep up both activities (loving and worrying), and in any event the two kinds of emotions are so different from each other that it’s hard for them to coexist. I find that the anxiety disappears quite quickly, but that may not be true for everyone. But that doesn’t matter — just keep wishing yourself and others well, and your anxiety will lessen.

2. Reassure your inner child

Anxiety finds something to be anxious about. Once you start working with your anxiety in order to lessen it, your anxiety will turn to the process itself. You’ll start worrying that your anxiety isn’t budging, or won’t go away, that you’re going to be stuck with it for life, etc. This is a primitive part of your brain speaking — your amygdala. It evolved to scan for danger, and sometimes it gets out of control. It’s screaming at your neocortex — the more rational part of your brain — and hijacking its functions. What you need to do is to turn the dynamic around so that it’s the rational neocortex that’s setting the agenda for the amygdala. And you do this by exercising your rationality, reminding yourself that change takes time, and that it isn’t always possible to see change happening in real time. Can you see a seed grow into a plant in real time? Of course not. You have to observe the change taking place over a long period of time. It’s the same with your emotional habits. Perhaps after 40 minutes of meditation there will be some perceptible change. Perhaps not. Perhaps it may take days or weeks. Engage the neocortex and remind yourself — remind the amygdala — that it’s OK, that change takes time. Over time, your neocortex gets better at reassuring the amygdala, so that you experience less anxiety. You’ll actually develop new pathways in your brain.

Here are some other suggestions:

3. Breathe into the belly

Make sure that you breathe fully into the belly. It centers our experience and slows the mind. Keep your awareness in the hara, a point just below the navel and just inside the body, throughout the day. This is your physical and emotional center of gravity. Keeping your awareness there helps you stay in balance.

4. Sit up!

Watch your posture. Relax the body, and make sure that your body is in the posture it would have if you felt confident. You remember what it feels like in the body when you’re confident? Let your body find its way into that relaxed, upright, open posture. You’ll feel different.

5. Acknowledge your suffering

Self-compassion is a vital practice: notice that you’re suffering when you’re in a state of anxiety. Locate the source of suffering in the body as specifically as you can. Send it thoughts of lovingkindness: “May you be well, may you be happy, etc.”

6. Count your blessings

As a meditation practice, these days, I become aware that I am in a building, safe and protected from the elements, and I say (inwardly) to the building, “Thank you.” I notice that I have plumbing, and electricity, and internet access around me, and I say (inwardly) to all these things, “Thank you.” I notice that my body is whole, and basically functioning, and even if there is illness present I know my body has the resources to heal itself, and I say to my body, “Thank you.” I notice that my senses are intact, and I say “Thank you.” It’s important to actually make the sound of the words in your head. There’s something about articulating gratitude in the form of words that makes the emotion of thankfulness more real. By focusing on what’s right in our lives, we take our awareness away from the things that we image to be wrong, or that we imagine could go wrong.

7. Head it off at the pass

But there are many forms of anxiety, and sometimes they’re very specific and can be addressed with very specific antidotes, so it would help if you could identify your core anxiety. What is it that you most commonly fear? What’s your worst-case scenario? I used to suffer anxiety when giving talks. My fear was that people were bored with what I was saying. My worst-case scenario — nightmare scenario, really — was that people would start chatting amongst themselves, or would get up and walk out! It was very useful to connect with what my nightmare scenario was, because it allowed me to find ways to avoid that fear arising. Since I was worried that my audience might be bored, all I had to do was to check that they were engaged. I’d ask them a question, right at the start of the class. And their responses would reassure me they had an interest in the topic. The talk would include further questions that would show me their engagement. (Incidentally, this made the talk more interesting, because people like to have an opportunity to interact).

I also used to suffer anxiety because of being overwhelmed with work. My fear was that I would forget some task that was vitally important. I found that planning tools helped me avoid that fear arising.

So I’d suggest facing your nightmare. Ask yourself what is it that you most fear. Then find creative ways to find reassurance.

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Mid-Week Balance: 16 November 2011
November 16, 2011 1:04 pm

[…] Bodhipaksa at Wildmind’s meditation practice blogs, I found this piece on using lovingkindness meditation practice as a tool to counteract anxiety.  I appreciate that, as usual, this post includes some helpful information about how we process […]

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I think that this piece sums up in a nutshell almost all the things I’ve learnt that have helped me to deal with a lifetime of anxiety! Over the course of this summer I had to face the worst attacks of anxiety I’ve had to date, and to anyone else suffering this way I would say, read this.
Thank you!

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Thanks for your vote of confidence. Please feel free to let others know about the resources you find here.

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I recently attended a training course (for people with chronic ill health) and found that identifying anxiety as something I am ‘doing’ to myself has helped me in that I realize I have ‘choice’. I can choose to ‘do’ anxiety to the point of feeling overwhelmed but the decision to call a halt to the anxiety followed by self-metta can create a big enough gap in which to work at releasing that stress/anxiety. It’s hard work though!

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That’s a great realization, Srivandana.

By the way, I’ll email you the latest version the first few chapters of the novel in just a moment. It’s changed quite a lot since you last saw it, except maybe the first chapter.

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Hi, Bodhipaksa, I am brand new to the world of Buddhism and meditation. I’m taking an introductory course in them. Would you believe at Aryaloka! I was just browsing thru the site to find something to read that would help me with my own suffering “anxiety’ before I begin my meditation. It was a wonderful reading. Now I’m all excited after finding that the author is from Aryaloka, so I’ll have to read it again … or maybe find something on how to calm down from feeling excited by surprise and joy! lol Thanks, again.

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Hi, Jiji.

What a small world! Our office is in downtown Newmarket, in the mill building. Do feel free to drop by.

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I tried the Power-posing a few days ago at a moment when I was feeling lots of anxiety in a big crowd, and had just noticed that some other people there had that sort of posture naturally, which served as a reminder to try this one out as a way “out” of the anxiety. Gosh, my anxiety just grew and rocketed. I persisted, just slightly stretching, nothing unatural in anyway, but at the end of the day, thinking of this half an hour or so, I just think this sort of posture is not the way for me now. Well, not the way in a crowd…

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I suspect you’re right, and that in a crowd was not the best place to experiment with something like this.

Some people are so prone to anxiety that virtually anything will be used as a trigger to become anxious. So it may be at first that even the very fact of becoming less anxious will trigger anxiety! But keep persevering. This works.

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Yes, right, that was not the right place, because part of my anxiety is related to what I imagine other poeple think of me. Silly imagination, but unconscious of course. I mean it is complicated matter. It’s about being the fear to be judged as ‘bad’ if I simply stand for myself… Guess that comes from emotionally abusive childhood.

Now, how crazy if even becoming less anxious triggers anxiety? What would be the best technique then?
I have noticed that their is a loop, when i notice I am in a painful state of anxiety, this fuels my anxiety further, because i feel I am losing control, and possibly also I have mean self-judgments then (unconscious, I can’t notice it on the spot with my level of self-awareness). Knowing all that helps me refrain from falling into despair, as I realise it’s a lot about throwing secondary darts onto myself, and I hope I can slowly decrease this behaviour, but so much is subconscious ! It seems it will take many years of minute work, hour after hour of my life…

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“Now, how crazy if even becoming less anxious triggers anxiety? What would be the best technique then?”

Well, any change can seem threatening. The best technique would be to just keep going. Situations that seem threatening because they’re new usually seem less so as we get used to them.

The loop you’re talking about — being anxious about being anxious — is a classic, and it’s what leads to panic attacks. It’s great that you’re realizing this dynamic and refraining from using the secondary darts of suffering.

There’s a lot you can do. In particular I’d recommend cultivating kindness (metta) and self-compassion. Being able to offer yourself kindness and reassurance dials down activity in the amygdala, and causes the neocortex to grow. This means that there will eventually be less anxiety, and and that you’ll develop a greater ability to regulate your emotions.

It is the work of years, but that’s the case with all of us. Life is about learning — we should never stop training the mind!

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😊 yep! thks for the encouragment and great post!

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