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Understand Your Anxiety + 5 Fixes

Getting to the root of your anxiety can help you overcome it.

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It is an ordinary day. Perhaps you’re at the office, walking down the street, or reading your email. All of a sudden, you think about a task you haven’t finished. Or you think about your friend who hasn’t called in several weeks, or about your college roommate who is doing so well in his law practice (much better than you!), or about your upcoming date, or about the fact that you have to give a presentation tomorrow. Suddenly, your shoulders seize up. Your neck tightens. Maybe your breath constricts or your belly starts to hurt. The tendrils of anxiety—that most modern of afflictions—have wound themselves around your body and mind like The Claw in an old sci-fi movie. And if you’re anything like the rest of us, it feels…normal. Anxiety is often so ingrained in the body that we live with it for years without noticing how much it drives us. Take Grayson, an architect just beginning a career with a new firm. He wakes up every day with tight shoulders and a feeling of dread. It’s fear of failure, he says, and it gets worse whenever he’s assigned to a new project. As it turns out, he did blow it a few times on graduate school projects, so his anxiety is related to the very real possibility that he could mess up again. Grayson’s anxiety is bad for his health and kills off his joy, but it has a powerful hold on him. He believes that his anxiety reminds him to check and double-check his work, protecting him against a tendency to carelessness. Just as paranoids sometimes have real enemies, anxious people often have real worries. That’s why merely telling yourself “There’s nothing to worry about” usually won’t help you feel less anxious. Instead, it’s much more useful to own your anxiety—to observe its flavors and patterns, to look at what might be setting it off, and then to find ways to work with it.

Teachable Moment

Anxiety can be a powerful teacher. It can show you where you’re hiding stress or holding unprocessed emotions. It might even remind you that there’s something you need to take care of. Most important, anxiety often signals the need for growth or for some inner shift. In fact, whenever you are being asked to move to a new level of skill or a new stage of life, you’re sure to encounter anxiety. This is true whether you’re facing something as simple as getting into a handstand, as exciting as getting married, or as fraught with complexity as opening up to a professional, psychological, or spiritual transformation. It’s only when you are willing to bring consciousness to your anxiety—to pay attention to the bodily sensations it brings, the thoughts that go along with it, and the situations that trigger it—that you can begin to learn from it. This isn’t always easy. Anxiety, like stress, is a subset of fear. (The root of the word “anxious” is the same as the root of the word “anger,” the Indo-German word “angh,” which means “to constrict.”) According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, fear is the last link in a chain that starts with a primal misunderstanding about our identity: our feeling of being disconnected from the universe. This inevitably leads us to identify with a limited notion of who we are. Then we crave some experiences while trying to push away others. Craving and aversion lead to fear of either not getting what we want (the professional breakthrough, the great love affair) or getting what we don’t want (a disease, being broke, having a friend stop liking us). The ultimate fear, of course, is of dying. Since fear always calls into question our capacity to survive and thrive, it’s a deep cause of suffering. Perhaps that’s why Indian iconography often depicts deities such as Shiva, Lakshmi, and others with one hand raised, palm facing forward, fingers pointing up in a gesture that signals to the viewer, “Fear not!” At the same time, as evolutionary biologists point out, fear has its uses. It’s designed to protect us. Even if you don’t know much about brain science, you’ve probably heard of the amygdala, the almond-shaped gland in the midbrain that generates primal emotions such as anger or fear. The amygdala is notoriously trigger-happy—it has to be because when you’re in real danger, you need to act quickly. When activated by a danger signal, the amygdala fires up, connects with the brainstem, and sets off an immediate physical reaction that bypasses the rational, executive part of the brain. This primal response is so much faster than your rational response that you could be in the midst of a fight-or-flight reaction before you’ve figured out whether the slithery shape in front of you is really a snake. Often, the “snake” is just a memory from the past that’s been triggered by something in the present. Likewise, you may associate a raised voice with your mother’s anger, which when you were small seemed to threaten your survival. So when someone raises her voice simply to emphasize a point, it feels like a threat. Your gut tightens, your neck spasms, and you start to speak defensively. The source of anxiety is in your past, but the emotional reactivity operates in the present.

Future Tense

Yet anxiety is also, paradoxically, mostly about the future. Brain scientist Joseph Ledoux defines anxiety as anticipatory. The woman who is worrying about her upcoming routine mammogram is not actually sick. She’s anxious about something the doctor might discover. The man whose palms sweat when the flight takes off is just anticipating that something might happen to the plane. Sometimes, we even begin to believe that our anxiety is keeping the bad thing from happening, like the man I know who subconsciously thinks that worrying about the plane crashing actually helps keep it aloft. Neuroscientists know that neuronal wiring does not discriminate between actual events and imaginary ones. So if you live in an environment that triggers the amygdala’s fight-or-flight reactivity, or if you keep nourishing your anxiety by letting worry feed on itself, your anxiety becomes like a motor with no off button. The more this happens, the more you wire yourself to be anxious. What’s more, many of us tend to confuse anxiety with diligence and believe that our anxiety helps keep us safe. I’ve had parents tell me that if they don’t worry, they are being bad mothers and fathers. Maggie, a lawyer who works in the district attorney’s office in a Midwestern city, is convinced that if she doesn’t feel anxious about a case, she isn’t doing her job right. In fact, when she feels relaxed about a case she’s working on, she worries that she’s losing her edge. No matter how many times her doctor and her yoga teacher tell her that stress isn’t good for her, Maggie remains convinced that she needs to feel anxious in order to function. She isn’t just victimized by her own wiring; she cuddles her anxiety. That’s part of the problem with anxiety. It is physiologically and psychologically addictive. You can get so habituated to it that you believe that the stories it tells are not only real, but helpful, necessary, and even obligatory. When the anxiety gets acute, the intense activity in your emotional brain can make it difficult to think creatively, much less change the situation you’re in. Moreover, since most anxiety comes from early childhood conditioning, feeling anxious takes you back to a much younger stage when you may have felt powerless to cope. In other words, far from helping us cope or keeping us safe, anxiety actually gets in the way of our functioning. And learning how to manage, understand, and let go of anxiety is one of the most powerful ways to lead a more creative and satisfying life.

Loosening Anxiety’s Grip

What does it take to loosen the hold of anxiety on your body and mind? The crucial first step is simply to become aware of it. As you read this, see if you can become aware of how anxiety feels in your physical body. What part of you tightens when you feel nervous? When you’re keyed up for a task or performance, do you hunch your shoulders? Does your throat get constricted? How about your lower back? Then, the next time you notice these physical symptoms, notice what is going on in your mind. What kind of mental dialogue are you having with yourself? When Maggie did this, she became aware of two or three habitual mental scenarios that were so mixed up with feelings and bodily sensations that she could hardly tell which came first! She often would assume the worst possible outcome of any situation. “They won’t like me,” was one of her defaults. Others were “I’m going to lose” or “It looks OK now, but if I am not careful, it will fall apart.” She realized that she continually looked for the ways in which the people around her could let her down, criticize her, or fail to give her credit for her good work. As Maggie looked more closely at her inner dialogue, she realized how much of her anxiety came from being a perfectionist. She was constantly asking herself, “Could I be doing more?” The answer was always “yes.” Some of that came from her father’s perfectionism—he would, she told me, examine the copper-bottomed pots after she scrubbed them to make sure there were no marks left. If there were, he would make her redo them. His voice had become deeply lodged in her brain. And, like Grayson, she was convinced that she couldn’t survive any sort of negative outcome. She was constantly judging herself for possible failure and worrying about whether things were going to work out. Maggie also saw how much of her habitual anxiety came from unprocessed emotions. This tendency to carry around feelings that we haven’t given ourselves a chance to work with is common for many of us. Suppose you have a difficult conversation with your boyfriend. You go to work with a tight feeling in your gut; maybe there’s an ache in your heart. You feel angry and sad, but you don’t stop to name the feelings, much less work with them. So the anger, sadness, tight gut, and achy heart become part of the undertow of your psyche. Later, when you blow up at someone or notice how jumpy you are, you don’t know why. If you can trace that feeling back to its source—which might be an incident from several hours or even several years ago—you can work with the original feeling by recognizing the emotion and its cause. If you can’t find the source, just naming the emotion can make a difference. Once you’ve learned to bring some awareness to your anxiety, you can find your way to greater ease through physical, mental, and emotional practices that will help you assimilate and even release anxiety. Even if the anxiety is pointing to something that needs to be taken care of in the “real” world, you can still work with the hooks that anxiety has stuck into you, both physically and mentally. Just becoming conscious of how anxiety feels can show you where to look deeper into your body and mind, where to let go of something you’re holding, and where to examine more closely a situation you’ve been ignoring.

Six Steps to Ease

I offered Maggie a six-part process that I use myself. At first, she found that the process took a lot of attention. But after a few weeks, it became almost automatic. First, when she noticed the familiar feelings of anxiety—the tight breath, the worried thoughts—she would look for where tension was showing up in her body. She nearly always found it in her shoulders and neck. Using the technique of mindfulness, she would become aware of the sensation as a warm, prickly, radiant mass. Second, she would focus on her heart. Sometimes she would actually imagine herself breathing horizontally as though she were breathing in and out through the chest wall. And at other times, she would concentrate on following the path of her breath from the nostrils down to the center of the chest and then focus on the area behind the breastbone as she tuned into the breathing process. Third, after taking a few minutes to center in the heart, she would ask herself, “What about my situation is contributing to the anxiety?” I suggested she do this as if she were running through a checklist: Am I tensing up because I’m worried about my performance? Am I rushing? Am I reacting to pressure from the outside? Is there something I’m neglecting that I should be paying attention to? She doesn’t analyze at this stage; she just notices what seems to be going on. Fourth, she would bring awareness to the thoughts running through her mind. Sometimes she would experience her anxiety as a kind of mental squeeze or constriction—not discrete thoughts, just a general inner miasma of negativity. Then she would ask herself, “Can I let go of that?” Often, just asking this question eased the mental constriction. Fifth, if she still felt anxiety, she would tune into any emotions that might be present, such as sadness, anger, resentment, or envy. She would try to notice if there was something she was overriding, like a feeling of social discomfort, or impatience, or a worry about an unfinished task. If need be, she would make a note of the feeling. And then she would ask herself if this, too, could be let go. Finally, I suggested that she summon up a feeling of warmth or pleasure. She often did this by remembering what it felt like to sit in the sun by the ocean. Sometimes, she would remember an especially sweet moment of satisfaction—the feeling of having won a case or of a certain moment with her boyfriend—and bring it into her heart. This practice is aligned with a skill that the Yoga Sutra calls pratipaksha bhavana, or “practicing the opposite”—countering a negative feeling with a positive one.

Radiant Energy

In the process of working through anxiety in the present moment, you can, as Maggie did, eventually become familiar with the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that trigger your habitual anxiety. It may not happen quickly. It often takes a while even to be able to pick up on the physical sensations and to recognize the negative thoughts. But when you practice with your habitual reactions to anxiety, its tendrils will start to dissolve. Your shoulders will become more relaxed, your inner dialogue will become kinder, and your emotions will be less reactive. One day, perhaps, you might notice that what you have perceived as anxiety is, at its core, just pure energy. This energy can be experienced as anxiety, but it can also be experienced as excitement or a feeling of being keyed up and ready for action. It can signal the necessary tension, the inner fire, that accompanies growth. The more you can be present with that tension and work with it—even, at times, allowing it to be there without resisting it—the more your anxiety can melt into its essence. When you use feelings of anxiety as a signal to let go, you begin to discover your own ways to free your primal energies from the lock-hold of old mental and emotional patterning. That’s when you’ll recognize one of the greatest secrets of the human organism: All of our energies, even the negative ones that can be so painful and limiting, have at their core the pure energy of life. That energy, if you go into it deeply enough, will reveal itself as inherently blissful. Sometimes, it’s enough just to sit with your feelings of anxiety to realize the existence of the powerful life energy behind them. This is the promise that some of the greatest yogis realized: As we resolve the issues that lock anxiety into the body and as we release the emotions and mental habits that create so much of our suffering, something radical happens. These primal negative emotions, centered in the amygdala and brainstem, start to show us their other face. They point us to the energy that yoga calls shakti—the leaping, dancing energy that can make any moment a creative moment and any experience a potential doorway to joy.

Fast Anxiety Soothers

When anxiety makes you feel physically constricted, these practices can help: Tighten and Release: Breathe in as you tighten and squeeze the muscles in your feet, arms, legs, shoulders, neck, and stomach. Exhale and quickly release the contractions. Continue until you feel a subtle warmth in your muscles. Shake Out Your Worries: Lift your right foot and leg and shake them seven times. Then do your left. Next, shake your right arm and hand and then your left. Start with seven shakes of each. Then count down, shaking your limbs 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. Dance It Away: Put on your earphones, stand up, and dance hard for three to five minutes—the length of a song. If you choose a fast-paced kirtan, the sacred sounds of the mantras will help release mental anxiety. Soothe Deeply: Sometimes what is required is a warm bath or hot shower. Other times, you need a massage. Breathe and Let Go: Find the parts of your body that feel tight and breathe into each with the thought, “Let go.”

Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It.