Anxiety: Resistance is futile
You feel your heart beat, your palms are damp with sweat, you feel like you can’t breathe and then panic kicks in because you don’t know what to do. Living with anxiety is a reality for many people living in stressful situations. The stresses and pressures that you are under may be different from the person next to you but the symptoms of anxiety are surprisingly similar.
Fear and anxiety are normal emotions that are necessary for our survival. If there is a real threat of danger, then our fear is designed to keep us alive. These emotions are there to protect us, so it is important to acknowledge, accept and listen to them.
It is also normal to display anxious symptoms about the possibility of something happening. Even thinking about a future event that is uncertain might cause us to panic. The thought of embarking on a new experience may feel terrifying, but it might just be that we are confusing excitement with terror.
However, if we are in a situation where there is no threat, no danger, no risk of harm, or where we are thinking of repeating something we have already done in the past, yet we experience fear and anxiety, then we need to ask, what is going on? and what can I do about it?
Here are some things you can do to help yourself cope.
Accept the feelings as they arise
Resistance to negative feelings is futile. If we were a mountain, and the weather was our emotions, then imagine how dry and dead the vegetation on the mountain would be if it were sunny all the time. The clouds may represent death, ageing, illness, as well as failures that we experience. Although dark and painful, we need the clouds that bring us water just as much as we need the sun.
As the rain starts to run down the mountain, it will form little streams. If we block these streams and cut them off, then they will divert and join other streams to form an even bigger river. Damming a river that continues to fill with water will eventually burst and create bigger problems in our lives.
Give the emotions space
Accepting our emotions doesn’t mean that we have to act on them. One of the main reasons we resist what we feel and fear may happen is because we worry that what we feel will drive us to act in ways that make our fears come true. We might even tell ourselves that, ‘If we don’t feel them, don’t see them, then we can pretend that we are OK and that everything is fine.’
In Buddhism, we are taught to develop a spiritual muscle that will contain the emotions. If accepting them is the equivalent of getting rid of the dams, then giving them space would be the equivalent of keeping the different emotional streams separate so that each one is manageable. We can direct them in a way where they can run their course without merging with other streams.
Deal with the little problems, so that they don’t become one big problem.
In accepting the rain, we might be able to direct it to a patch of ground that has been parched. We don’t have to let our emotions control us, and we don’t have to treat them like they have all the power. There is a difference between accepting that we can’t control our feelings arising, and choosing what to do with the energy generated by them. For example, we don’t have to act angry just because we feel angry.
The Buddhist teaching is to see that you are not your emotions, but this does not stop emotions from arising. The way forward is to accept the emotions, hold the energy that arises and use that energy to do what helps you, not what the feelings are driving you to do.
Not going along with the unacceptable
There are many situations that are unacceptable. Accepting the reality that something unacceptable has happened does not mean that we should be OK with that situation. Acceptance is not ambivalence nor is it being OK with everything.
We still need to differentiate between good and bad experiences. If something happens to you that stirs negative feelings then we can accept the emotions fully, whilst choosing what we do with the energy that arises in a constructive way. We can do this without denying the reality, and without the negative emotions driving your next action.
We may not have any control over our feelings and fears, but we do have control over what we choose to do with them. In accepting the rain that falls, we can give our feelings space, and we can choose not to react but to wait. We may then decide to not put ourselves in certain situations or expose ourselves to harmful relationships.
Giving space to our fears and understanding that they are not in control of what we do with the energy that arises in us, can allow us to act in ways that take the water and use it in a way that enables growth. It is paradoxical and counter-intuitive but, after time, our spiritual strength allows us to be tender and compassionate to our fears so that those fears no longer have a grip on us. Instead, compassion holds the fear and wisdom takes action.