A Mindful Way Through Anxiety
We all experience anxiety sometimes. It can make us feel crazy. Ultimately, if we practice mindfulness meditation the anxiety often dissipates. In reality however, meditating is sometimes too far a stretch from where we are, and we need to be Mindful of what is needed.
I use two conceptual models that give a cognitive understanding of what might be happening. These maps are both informative, and over time, allow the mind to settle enough to start to meditate and build greater ongoing calm, stability of mind and resilience.
The first model shows the four main areas that stress can arise from. Anxiety is typically caused by the impact of stress on our Genetic makeup:
- Physical – Health problems, exercise, sleep
- Biochemical – Brain chemistry, hormones, toxins, substance abuse
- Social – Relationships, work, finances, leisure, domestic life
- Psychological – Personality, self talk, identity, beliefs, emotions
I saw a lawyer who had suffered with anxiety and panic attacks for 15 years. He had lots of therapy, and support group meetings etc, until we discovered that the panic was really Hypoglycemia. When he stopped eating sugar and drinking coffee, his anxiety all but disappeared, and I was reminded that we need to be mindful of all the causes of anxiety and not assume it is always psychological.
The second model comes from the Eastern traditions and is about the Two Truths.
- Absolute truth – ultimate picture – wisdom
- Relative truth – mundane world – compassion
It is about recognising that we see things in different ways at different times. In moments of clarity we recognize that all is well, that people are as they are, that we are as we are, that unpleasant moments pass, that pleasant moments pass. And we are calm and clear. We have the wisdom to make useful decisions that serve ourselves, the people around us and the planet. We see the ultimate reality that we are but specs of dust in the landscape of time. All in this humanness together. This is Absolute truth born of wisdom.
And then there are moments when we only see our own pain, our own stories, and we believe them and get lost in them. We judge and blame, fear judgment from others and ourselves, we fear loss, we feel inadequate, we act against values and consequently do not prioritise time and energy, we lack order, feel confused and yet don’t ask, we lose sight of our own strengths, and are unable to see things as they are. We can’t always differentiate if the anxiety is guiding us to seeing something important, or trapping us, and we respond with experiential avoidance of the unpleasant. This is Relative truth, as we respond to our mundane existence, and in which we need compassion.
I recently worked with a senior professional man who was experiencing extreme anxiety. From the perspective of Absolute truth (ultimate reality), we know there is no need for, or much value in, anxiety… But, when we are caught in the anxiety of the Relative truth (Our mundane world) we are unable to see things as they really are. We need compassion for what we are experiencing regardless of how accurate our perceptions are or are not.
So, I introduced this man to the first model and explained the range of different factors accumulating to create anxiety, and he calmed as he realised that he had recent and chronic stresses in a number of those areas. For different people different aspects are relevant, and for this man understanding his own personality was key.
He is an introvert rather than extrovert. He had felt inadequate next to his colleagues, who also wanted him to be more like them, and both had missed the true value of his gifts and the needs of his personality. He actually earned more income, and developed stronger relationships with clients for the company than anyone else, and yet no one had registered the introvert qualities as the gifts he brought, rather than as qualities to be changed.
This alleviated much of his self-judgment, generated some self-compassion and he saw the extent to which this one dimension had been the cause of much anxiety in subtle and gross ways for decades. Over 2-3 sessions, he started to view himself and his interactions very differently, was a lot calmer and we started to meditate.
Meditation will often calm us and allow us to regain perspective (clarity and wisdom) sometimes it is kind and wise to also give the mind information to hold on to, to understand and trust before it lets itself rest.
Liana Taylor © 2014