Monday, July 18, 2011

Making Friends with Anxiety

Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.
                                                Ralph Waldo Emerson

I was sitting on a plane recently, on my way home from a pleasant vacation. I relaxed and may have even dozed off for awhile. Interesting. A few years ago, relaxing on an airplane would not have been a possibility. Just the thought of getting on a plane would start that constricted feeling in my chest and make my heart beat too fast.  And it wasn’t just planes: long car rides, crowded theaters. . . any place where I felt I couldn’t make a quick escape could send me into a panic.

Panic attacks. They start with a small tightness in my chest, and the feeling grows and grows. Can’t breathe. About to lose all control over my bodily functions. May cause a scene, screaming to escape wherever I am. May die.

For awhile I decided that the best way to avoid anxiety was to avoid any situation where it could be an issue – a very limiting way to live. I started gathering information about anxiety and started asking questions. Why has this phenomena appeared in my life? What is anxiety trying to tell me? Looking back, I probably have to thank anxiety for starting me out on a spiritual path. Anxiety was an invitation (a demand?) to take a look at my life and decide if I liked what I was seeing.

Years ago, my hope was to STOP the anxiety from ever happening again. It hasn’t happened that way for me.  In certain situations, I still feel that familiar tightness begin, but instead of pushing the feeling away, I welcome my old friend. I thank anxiety for letting me know I’m in an unfamiliar, potentially “dangerous” situation. I breathe and bring myself to the present moment.

Years ago, the suggestion that I welcome anxiety would have made me very angry. All the books I read had similar suggestions: when a panic attack begins, just ride it out and soon you’ll be on the other side of it.  Even better, when the panic begins, say “Yes!” and try to bring it on. Obviously, I thought, those authors had never experienced the hell that I had.

But they were right! It’s very hard to make yourself have an anxiety attack. Panic seems to get stronger the more you push it away – and weakens by being invited in and welcomed.

Every now and then, I still feel that old familiar tightness, and I ask Anxiety how big it needs to get. I breathe and pay attention. The tightness subsides and I relax.

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