Anxiety and Mindfulness: Anxiety is Not an Emotion!
When asked, very frequently, people indicate that they are experiencing anxiety. Or often, they indicate that they are stressed. And in extreme arousal states they might even indicate that they are experience panic. What do these frequently utilized terms actually mean? Often, when I ask my clients how or what they are feeling, they might reply with one of the above labels, as if they are feelings. However, in actuality, they really are not. They are arousal states. So what people are indicating is that they are experiencing an undifferentiated pattern of physiological arousal, since, at some level, their nervous system has identified a threat. Sometimes people can identify and articulate the threat (or at least what they think it is). However most times, they cannot. This perceived threat can be virtually anything. But keep in mind, our nervous systems can be pretty dumb , given that in this regard at least it has not significantly evolved in more than 50,000 years. And so the only way the nervous system knows how to respond to threat is by the “flight or fight” response which has its neurological basis in very primitive areas of our central nervous system, residing in what is commonly termed the limbic system or mammalian brain. So regardless of whether one is faced with a charging grizzly bear or a contemplating financial difficulties, the anatomical response is virtually the same, perhaps only differing by degree.
OK….so those of you who know me and my approach, by now realize that I am a cruel and sadistic bastard and so I ask people to more directly plunge their attention into their darkest feelings, to the fullest possible extent in the interest of mindful emotional exposure. And when I do, fascinating and often unexpected things arise. So, for example when I ask people to allow the experience of anxiety or even panic to arise, it often turns out that the underlying emotion is not fear as one might expect. Fear only is experienced at the surface level since people are often afraid to experience what they are really feeling due to a variety of reasons stemming from one’s personal conditioning history. So one can say, fear is a defense. Often, just below the surface is anger (usually at a loved one), guilt (for experiencing anger), helplesness (because they see no resolution), also hopelesness, despair and very frequently SHAME! (more on that at a later time). So, based on this, the advice I would offer is to to try to find the emotions residing within the anxiety, stress or even panic. Label those feelings and simply watch and observe them. As you identify these feelings, you may now have some clues as to what needs to be done. Remember, emotions convey critical information, and they are also a drive state designed to compel us to action. So, upon recognizing that you are really experiencing anger at a spouse for example, now you can formulate what needs or feelings need to be expressed. And if you recognize that you are afraid to do so for fear of reprisal, then that conveys important information as well that allows other choices to be contemplated. So, by opening up to and following the feelings, they actually can serve as a guide, rather than an experience to avoid or otherwise control. It is important that nothing special needs to be done with the feelings that arise. Simply pay attention, and continue to label the feelings that emerge. And so if you feel anxiety or other arousal states coming up, ask yourself the question, “What emotions are my experiencing?” Put your mind squarely into the physical place(s) in your body that seem to hold and reverberate with the arousal, and pay attention to whatever feelings, thoughts, memories, physical sensations and images that may blossom forth. Pay attention to any impulse to shut this process down as will likely occur. Sometimes, this process will feel too threatening to pursue on one’s own. At such times, I would urge you to seek professional assistance to help guide you through the process.
Occasionally, when asked, people indicate that they feel “depressed”. Just as with anxiety, depression is not an emotion. Depression is a clinical syndrome characterized by durable periods of sadness, fatigue, loss of energy, loss of motivation and so on. And so when I ask people to focus on the “depression”, often the feelings that emerge are helplesness, hopelesness, despair. But mostly, and perhaps not too surprisingly, the emotion that most often surfaces is anger! And almost immediately, upon mindfully witnessing the feelings, whichever ones arise, feelings that have been avoided and stuck spontaneously begin to flow. As this occurs, one can immediately appear more animated and just generally more engaged and present. And so, at the risk of sounding like a broken record (though important messages bear repeating), I exhort everyone to label their feelings and place attention into them with fullest intention. In so doing, one may lead a more fully engaged and fluid life.