At one time or another everyone experiences the modern version of fear, which is anxiety. Our ancestors experienced physical threats that made the fight-or-flight response useful. That’s no longer the case. In modern life, largely thanks to increased stress, we endure a low-level pressure on the nervous system. When this chronic, nagging response rises to the surface of the mind, a person notices the telltale signs of modern fear: worry, insomnia, an absence of happiness, distraction, all of which can build into chronic anxiety.
The way we deal with modern fear determines to a great extent how creative, fulfilling, and contented daily life is. Many billions are spent on tranquilizers, which can reduce the symptoms of anxiety, but they are only a stopgap. Take away the drug, and anxiety almost always returns.
We need a better way to face modern fear and its daily emotional cost. The answer lies with the enemy of fear, the aspect of the human mind that can actually heal fear: awareness. Once you realize that awareness can heal fear, you can assume the role of self-healer, which is empowering, whereas anxiety makes personal power impossible. Modern everyday fear certainly does not pose the threats that war, violence, and natural disasters do, but it still makes people feel weak and helpless.
Awareness comes in three forms, each of which has the potential to heal.
Interoception (awareness of your physical body from the inside)
Self-healing takes advantage of all three avenues. They apply to other mental problems like depression, but here I’ll focus on anxiety.
The glory of human evolution is the higher brain, but in the brain’s setup, we react first and think second. This should give us the best of both worlds. You can react instantly to get out of the way of an oncoming bus and evaluate what happened afterwards. But when people are used to feeling anxious, fear has entered first and is not followed by reason.
When you feel anxious, starting with the first low-level impulse that you notice, ask some rational questions:
Am I really in danger?
Do I need this anxious thought?
Do I want this anxious feeling?
Is this just a familiar response that comes back on its own?
Almost always your rational mind can see that you aren’t in danger, you don’t need to feel afraid, and anxious thoughts are relics from the past. Having made this assessment, you can face the anxious thought or feeling and say, “I no longer need you.” Repeat this statement to yourself silently if the anxious thought persists. If it does, don’t force anything. Ignore the anxious impulse and do whatever you are doing. Let the low-level anxious impulse fade away.
When you ask these questions, you are remaining present with an anxious thought/feeling without giving in to it. This puts you in a more powerful position. Anxiety is largely a learned response left over from the past. When faced with a challenge in our past, almost always beginning in childhood, anxiety gained control because we favored timidity, avoidance, denial, passivity, running away, feeling weak, and adopting the attitude that there was no one there to help. These behaviors and attitudes aid fear in taking root.
As a child it isn’t possible to bring reason in to change things. (There is also the damaging input of other people, particularly in a dysfunctional family, and the possibility of early traumas.) Now you are an adult and can confront each of these elements. This is done when you feel calm, not when you are afraid. It also helps to have a close sympathetic confidant to talk to. Take each of the allies of fear listed above, and write down how much it affects you today and how you can reasonably begin to change.
Fear is an unconscious response; self-awareness is conscious. This makes all the difference. The more consciously you make choices, the more empowered and in control you will be. Whenever anxiety starts to appear in any situation, looking at it, being aware of it, feeling it, is a conscious choice. Running away, going into denial, turning a blind eye, etc. are unconscious choices that automatically surrender to fear.
Among the conscious choices anyone can make are the following:
Bringing awareness to the body by directly sensing what is going on physically is the area of interoception. The key to interoception, a term that may still be unfamiliar to many people, lies in wholeness. The signals being sent to you by your body are just as meaningful and intelligent as your thoughts and insights. The common link between mind and body is awareness, which permeates both. The greater your perception of physical sensations, the more connected you are to yourself as a whole.
This is important with regard to fear. Most anxious people have diminished body awareness. Fear brings its own set of physical signs. You feel cold and weak; your breath is shallow and in your upper chest area; a sweat may break out; there can be trembling or shaking; the mind shuts down in order to escape these unpleasant sensations, resulting in confusion and panic or even fainting if anxiety keeps growing. The motivation to run away from fear makes people go numb or deny what they feel. At best they go rigid and try to put up a wall to block these sensations.
But all of these avoidance tactics are futile. Anxiety will keep gaining the upper hand, and yet to surrender control isn’t necessary. If you close your eyes right now and let your attention roam from head to toe, easily paying attention to what is going on inside, what do you discover? Inner space. The same space that encloses mind and body is a space of awareness. We register pain physically and mentally inside this space. We register anxiety as physical and mental within the same space.
Through interoception you can occupy this space differently, as the realm of awareness through which flows creative intelligence, healing, and bliss. Any glimpse you have ever had of the highest values in human awareness—love, compassion, insight, creativity, empathy, and personal growth—took place here. It isn’t really accurate to say that this space is inside you because consciousness is everywhere. Only habit and conditioning makes us tag the experience of interoception as being “in here.” Imagine the color blue or the scent of a rose. What you see and smell doesn’t have a location. Its only location is the field of consciousness, which has no locality.
When you are comfortable in the field of consciousness, fear loses all power over you. This takes practice. Going inside can become a natural response through meditation, yoga, contemplation, or simple sitting with eyes close, taking 3 or 4 slow, deep breaths, and placing your attention on our heart for a few minutes (a practice I call centering). You don’t just use these practices like a Band-aid when you feel anxious. Instead, you build up your interoception as a way of feeling comfortable “in here” all the time. By securing your inner space and letting it expand, you counter the contraction and constriction that fear creates.
In all three modes—rationality, self-awareness, and interoception—awareness heals. This, I think, is the greatest personal discovery you can make in these anxious times. You were designed to experience the flow of creative intelligence and bliss in your awareness. Fear is an intruder who has no business there. Know that this is true, and your road to healing and empowerment is open.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
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