It's easy to forget that we are all perfect in our own design. Sometimes we muck it up with habits and choices that do not serve us.
These difficult times bring increased stress, and a natural reaction to stress is anxiety. Far from being simple, anxiety is multi-dimensional, as symbolized in brain structure—the brain itself feels no emotions, because emotions occur in consciousness. You are the product of the evolution of consciousness, and your anxiety has physical, emotional, and rational aspects.
Anxiety passes through each dimension in a sequence. What you need to know is that each dimension can generate fear, and yet in itself, consciousness isn’t fearful. Ancestrally, primitive fear originates in the lower brain, where the fight-or-flight response resides, an inheritance shared by almost all animals. Except in a sudden emergency or moment of alarm, modern humans have minimal need to this inheritance. But modern life generates low-level stress responses that we barely notice but which overload the nervous system, which needs the kind of stress relief few people find the time for.
The second dimension of anxiety is emotional, which originates in the amygdala, part of the mid-brain, where your responses are ore evolved. But emotional patterns are learned in childhood and tend to stick for decades if not an entire lifetime. Piling on worry as a habit turns anxiety into a default mode that gets triggered by small events, most not worthy of worry. So like fight-or-flight, the emotional aspect of anxiety has little positive value to modern people.
The final dimension of anxiety is the most evolved, our capacity for reason. Rationally anyone can be shown that fight-or-flight and emotional worries are not reasonable. Unfortunately, the higher brain is a final destination, by which time the other dimensions of anxiety have kicked in. Telling yourself or someone else not to worry registers rationally but doesn’t affect the pathway that fear has already taken.
I’m beginning with these basic facts about the brain to make an important point: although every dimension of anxiety causes some region of the brain to “light up,” you are the ultimate controller of your responses. In the connection between mind, body, and spirit, much of the anxiety response is open to change—once you understand how. The first principle is that spirit offers the deepest level of control over anxiety and stress. There is a level of the mind that transcends the ups and downs of daily life. In its unbroken peace and stillness, this is the place you need to reach through meditation. Having become accustomed to finding your spiritual core, you will find anxiety-packed moments much diminished in their effect.
But meditation is a long-term project, and most people want to know how to deal with anxiety right this minute. There are three things I do personally, but they can be treated as one technique.
The beauty of undertaking a long-term meditation practice is that it becomes much easier to breathe, center yourself, and let your anxiety dissolve away.
The second practice for dealing with anxiety is self-care. Stand back and take a look at how you are relating to stress in terms of your own well-being. Many people plunge into anxiety-packed moments for reasons that contradict their own health and happiness. For some it’s a matter of duty or showing how tough they are or not looking vulnerable. I’m not arguing against any of these motivations. But if you sit quietly and consider how high your anxiety level is throughout a typical day, you can objectively weed out the kind of encounters that you can predict in advance will push your anxiety buttons. I have in mind such things as
If you are as kind to yourself as you are to others, you will seriously examine the damage you are doing to your inner life by welcoming needless stress and the anxiety that accompanies it. Those who are naturally empathic are often also anxious. Wanting to feel what another person is feeling, many empathetic people learn early on that they will pay the price of feeling anxious, and it’s a price they are willing to pay because they value that connection to others that empathy gives them. However, there is a way to remain empathetic without taking on the anxiety.
This leads to the third practice for anxious moments, which is to find detachment while still offering empathy. In my medical practice, especially early on when many of the nursing staff were veterans of World War II or the Korean War, I observed that after seeing so much horror, these women were detached and yet incredibly good at offering comfort, care, and nurturing attention. I know this sounds like a contradiction, in part because the root words in “compassion” mean “to suffer with.” I believe in compassion that doesn’t focus on “suffering with” but on “caring for.” A caretaker who makes you believe in your healing is worth much more than someone weeping by your bedside—such has been my experience.
Detachment isn’t the same as indifference, which contains no caring. Instead, detachment is skillful caring. When I meet someone who has mastered this skill, their behavior contains the following elements:
Learning this kind of skillful caring doesn’t help only the people you care for—it should be applied to yourself. Fear is defeated by the part of the mind that has learned how to confront fear and emerge the victor. Anxiety is multi-dimensional, but so are you and I, which gives us the ability to acquire emotional resilience, to learn new responses, to learn from others’ examples, and to find the core in ourselves that fear cannot disturb.
Join Panache Desai each weekday morning for support in reconnecting to the wellspring of calm and peace that lives within you and that has the power to counterbalance all of the fear, panic, and uncertainty that currently engulfs the world.
Designed To Move You From Survival and Fear to Safety and Peace. Available Monday - Friday. Meditation begins at 9 AM. Access early to hear Panache's monologue - around 8:30 AM.
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