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.