Myth of "managing" Anxiety

The Myth of “Managing” Anxiety

At the national level, anxieties are greatly elevated according to current research. In my private practice, patients are increasingly desiring to address the emotions and concerns that arise from the rapid unfolding of current events. I have recently been seeing countless articles on “how to manage anxiety,” often in the wake of the Covid epidemic and the storming of the capital. These articles often articulate content that appears sensible at the surface, but actually are based on a very partial understanding of the factors that drive the experience of anxiety. While certainly well intended and often containing some helpful tips to help people weather the storm of uncertainty, fear, helplessness, hopelessness and the other emotions engendered by recent events, these articles perpetuate some myths about the source of human suffering, and thus the best ways to deal with it deserve to be called into question. This post is to expose the myth of “managing’ anxiety and to propose an alternative view with implications for treatment.

The myth of "managing" anxiety
Myth of “Managing” Anxiety

First we need to understand the meaning of the term “anxiety.” It is a term, like “stress” that is so broadly applied and in so many different contexts, as to almost obscure its meaning and undermine its utility. All it really means is that our nervous system is perceiving some undifferentiated threat and is activating its emotional and physiological arousal systems to marshal some kind of response. The problem is, that in most cases, the nature of the threat does not warrant a physiological or even behavioral reaction. Keep in mind that our central nervous system has not appreciably evolved over the course of the last 50,000 or so years, and yet our world has changed in inconceivable ways during that span. Thus the threats that were prevalent then (saber tooth tigers, marauding tribes) are for the most part no longer extant. The threats that do currently present, are not well served by flight, fight corn freeze responses or other strong emotional arousal systems.

Furthermore, as one trains their attention deeper into the experience of anxiety or even panic, very specific emotions are likely to be revealed. Surprisingly, fear is often not the most dominant emotional experience that arises. More typically, feelings such as anger, shame, guilt, sadness, and helplessness are quickly identified. Therefor anxiety can be seen as a defensive smokescreen, to obscure these other feelings from conscious experience. Once these emotions are identified, the experience of anxiety and panic quickly subside, and one can identify what actions that need to be taken to address the social.environmental/historical issues that are giving rise to their feelings.

Endeavors to manage our emotions, is to fuel the illusion that there is some master self, sitting at some central control panel that can decide what to feel or how much to feel. “Managing” thus feeds into the illusion of control. And when these control mechanisms don’t work as invariably they will not, then we are left feeling more out of control and helpless, leading to a pretty nasty cycle. Yet, the feelings we are experiencing are quite acutely uncomfortable and thus understandably evoke a strong drive to mitigate of avoid the arising feelings. This can take all shapes and forms from chronic worry and rumination, consuming drugs and alcohol, social avoidance, binge watching Netflix or YouTube, shopping on Amazon, self injury, acting out and all manners of behavior.

So sure, as is often suggested, it is helpful to practice breathing, yoga, decreasing news and facebook consumption, taking a walk, engaging healthy social supports, engaging a hobby, healthy eating, and so on. Those will all help to maintain some degree of emotional equanimity during such challenging times. But yet, in the peripherally of consciousness, a deep sense of foreboding, disquiet, fear, dread, anger and a host of other emotions are likely to persist, occasionally breaking through to then surface as a general sense of ‘anxiety”.

Contemporary behavioral psychology and ancient Buddhist philosophies and practices are converging to point to another direction, that of utilizing challenges and hardships, whatever they may be, to produce transformative growth. These practices, which I term “mindful exposure” involve the purposeful directing of attention into difficult emotional experiences and viewing them and experiencing with complete openess and ultimately generating “radical acceptance”.

This process can be broken down into a number of steps that are further elaborated in other blog posts and in my first two books. , ,

First – anchor attention into the bodily sensations that are associated with the arising emotions. Intently focus on whatever the sensations in the body that are provoked by the feelings. usually these feelings may be in one of the various chakras or energy centers along the midline of the body. Sometimes they will just be felt in the head or parts of the periphery.

two– Engage in emotional labelling. name the emotions that seem to best fit the sensations that arise. be as specific as possible in discriminating the emotions. Avoid labels such as ‘depressed” or “anxious”.thos are not emotions but reactions to underlying emotional states. As you probe deeper, you will see that under those experiences, you may identify anger, fears off loss, shame, helplessness, hopelessness etc. there is no right thing to feel. Just watch the feelings and continue to label them as they arise.

three – watch whatever changes take place as you continue to ride within ‘surf’ the feelings. Feelings and sensations will start to move and shift as they become more dynamic (movement) and less stuck. Try to avoid getting stuck in the mental dramas that invariably accompany these sensations. For example, you may fantasize about having conversations with those who you find offensive. Just come back to the feelings and associated sensations and keep labelling arising feeling states. There are good emotional vocabulary lists online or in my “perfect shame” book to assist in that endeavor.

four – There is nothing to fix or manage since nothing is broken. Don;’t try to feel better, rather try to better feel! just follow the process and trust that your mind/body knows what to do. There is no goal or better thing to feel or place to arrive. the idea is to be present wherever you are. As the saying goes, “Wherever you go, there yo are!” Try to resist the attempt to be the engineer or architect of your experience. The process is the destination. A greater sense of peace, harmony, equanimity does arise to the extent that you relinquish your control tactics. but that takes some time.

five – For the true warriors, try and see if you can purposefully provoke your greatest fears, insecurities, and so on. In your minds eye you can expose yourself to those cues that evoke your greatest fears and uncomfortable emotions: usually this has to do with facing the reality of impermanence. this can be your own desirability or death, loss of loved ones, loss of finances, loss of job, etc. It can also mean facing the fears of loss of acceptance by others… being rejected, disapproved of, judged as inferior, ridiculed, shunned, and the fears off complete abandonment, isolation, and alienation. These are all the core human fears. To the extent that we can face them, we can lead a much freer life without the the defenses and attachments that actually increase personal insecurity and suffering. Ultimately, there should be no place in our mind that we cannot venture. There is nothing harmful or dangerous to think, feel, imagine or envision. Chances are, it is already there, just lurking below the conscious surface. By bringing it into attention, once can lead a more conscious and present life, with greater compassion towards one’s self and all sentient beings. ,

As always, you are encouraged to offer thoughts, opinions, personal experiences, disagreements, puppy pictures etc. below. Think of this as Facebook for people with insight and compassion:) Maybe we can call it spirit book?

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