Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Goodbye, anxiety, I won't miss you

I have 10 "wise sayings" of Thomas Jefferson in my office that I got while visiting Monticello. One near the bottom says, "How much pain have cost us the evils that never happened!" I know he had people like me in mind when he came up with that one.

Being anxious seems to run in my family, at least on my mom's side. I have an aunt who would get frantic if she was expecting someone and did not hear from them. (This happened one time when we were traveling to visit her.)

I have this free-floating anxiety that tends to attach itself at night, especially when I'm lying in bed trying to sleep. I guess my normal defenses against it are at a low ebb at that time, and it can get a foothold into my psyche.

This condition has been part of my existence for a very long time, since my early childhood. Back then, I had some things to legitimately be anxious about, and so this condition has just followed me ever since, though it has become increasingly inappropriate and out of place in my life.

I was so strongly drawn to Buddhism because of this shadow side of me, anxiety. The Buddhist practice is so helpful, in a practical way, in alleviating anxiety. Christianity, too, warns against anxiety -- Do not worry about tomorrow, today has enough troubles of its own. But it doesn't give a road map of what to do when you have it.

Buddhism does, and it is quite simple. Whatever the trouble, you face it full on and stare it in the face. You say, "Hello, trouble." You investigate. How does this trouble feel? You detach from the wandering, anxious mind, but attach to the body and its physical sensations. This is amazingly helpful in the face of any crisis. The mind tends to start running around to random places, screaming in terror, and the body reacts by winding up into a knot. Calm the mind, and you can at least focus on the tension building in your body.

It's like one of my favorite Dilbert comics. Someone asks if the company has a disaster plan. The answer is, of course, yes! The next frame shows what the plan is: employees dashing around frantically, hands waving in the air, shouting for help.

"Calming" may not be the right word for what to do with the mind as it starts spitting out random scary thoughts faster and faster. Detach and just watch it doing its crazy dance. Realize how insane it is, and how unhelpful. For instance ... when I am faced with a negative thought or potentially bad news, my mind takes off and multiplies the horror.

My child has a fever? Oh NO! It must be something really bad like meningitis. We'll have to go to the ER. Or, if I happen to fall asleep, at that exact moment, my child's fever will spike, and he will be too sick to even cry out, and by the time I discover him, he will be a dead, withered husk! There's nothing I can do about it! I knew this would happen, that my child would be taken away from me! yada, yada, yada.

Since I am a Christian, I also push these thoughts away with the statement, "Get behind me, Satan!" These are the times that my mind is my worst enemy and is the devil's playground.

When my kids are physically far away from me, it is an opportune time for a panic attack, and I was feeling one coming on last evening.

I can see that I have made a lot of progress, because it came and then went. It did not have sticking power the way it would have in the past. I slept well and peacefully. I listened to the air conditioning, and tried to be like a newborn listening, without attaching meaning to the sound. The whoosh of air was so powerful, like it was going to blow me away. It wasn't a frightening noise, but a powerful one. And then there were the crickets and frogs outside, and they were pulsating with a rhythm that was calming. Funny how we all pulsate and vibe with our breathing, and our heartbeats. We are creatures of rhythm.Living is a rhythmic activity.

I wish I could help other people who have this type of problem. Thinking about it makes it worse. It is best to just be in the body, listening and aware of all physical sensations. It takes practice -- a lifetime of bad habits won't go away overnight.


  1. Don't panic but did you hear that 3 of Karen's kids have meningitis? Including the 3-day old baby (he is in the hospital but I saw him tonight and he looks good). Another friend also has it, and we have a few more days to go before we know if Camille is out of the woods. She had a sleepover with 2 of the girls who have it - the very night the first one became ill. PANIC!! Seriously, I also suffer from the "what if" anxiety. I don't know how I'll live with it once Ellie leaves for college.....But I am getting better at "accepting" and that is a huge deal for me. I really don't usually do well with accepting things I cannot change....but am working on it.

  2. I can't believe Karen is suffering through that. The newborn makes me so alarmed; I was so upset to see that on Facebook. That's the time that a mom needs to reach really deep to find a place of calm and hope. I am learning that my panicking makes a bad situation worse. This post was made optimistically, in the hopes that those feelings go away.


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