For anyone going through anxiety, worry or tension, COVID has been a potent gathering point, a clearly defined cause of distress. Yet, the chances are good that if we are dealing with anxiety now, it may have begun long before the pandemic. The world has always been a dicey place to live, and anxiety is a disorder of our times.
Other than it being so common, there’s not a lot to recommend for anxiety. Anyone who is dealing with it knows how it can upend a life, with its many manifestations, from bad sleep to upset stomachs to panic attacks. So it’s understandable that we think of it as something that shouldn’t be there, and must be made to go away. But anxiety is both a freestanding disorder and a messenger, trying to get our attention.
Learning to work with anxiety can be scary. We worry about things that may never happen, and in our fear we scold the future as if it has already done something wrong. It takes a lot of soothing and kind comfort to convince us to relax our vigilance. But when our nervous system has calmed down, we can look closer. What is going on in our life that anxiety is trying to point us to?
That can be a complicated question, but is completely worth asking.
As we look for answers, we need time and patience, and also support and guidance. From within, it takes a coordinated effort of our deeper self, our body, our mind and our heart. We need all of these because we want to stop pushing anxiety away and instead, draw it near.
In her book, The Wisdom of Anxiety, Cheryl Paul offers some guidance. Her approach is to engage four elements: curiosity, compassion, stillness, and gratitude. The first, curiosity, involves what my therapist told me so many times – get to know anxiety really well, like a friend. What does it feel like, when does it come, what does it do?
Then when it shows up, it’s familiar, like an old t-shirt.
The second element, compassion, is about an open heart. Our heart knows how hard anxiety is, and like a dear friend, says, “I understand.” Maybe we see that we need a good breathing practice, or we seek outside support. We should find our version of the fireman who gently cat-whispers us down from the tree.
Stillness, the third element, gives us the space to process whatever goes on. It can be meditation, or going for a walk, or some other activity that allows us to just be. It has been said the Aboriginal people of Australia spend two-thirds of their waking hours in some form of inner work. How would it be to actually spend time with ourselves and see how things are going on inside?
As if our own company was worthwhile and interesting and full of discovery?
The last of these, gratitude, may at first seem impossible. After suffering for so long, how could anxiety be a gift? But as the healing begins, and chronic tension loosens its grip, we naturally become thankful. Not just for the relief of having less worry, but also because we know that even if our worry does not disappear completely, we know how to meet it with ease.