In my prior post, I described my first experiences with anxiety and panic attacks, as well as the coping mechanisms I used to avoid difficult emotions. Those strategies were mostly ineffective for my long-term mental health. While everyone’s path is unique, this post will reveal how I left anxiety and panic attacks behind; from the first productive steps of seeking help and therapy to the realization that I no longer had to fear difficult emotions.
Turning toward Anxiety
I spent much of my early adulthood evading uncomfortable feelings, whether anxiety, fear, or regret. While circumstances would change, my strategies remained the same; avoid challenging emotions through distraction or attempts to intellectualize the problems. When I was 34 years old and in dire straits, I finally met with a therapist, who during our first session asked how I was feeling. After my response, he suggested that I had actually expressed a thought instead of an emotion. He also asked if I would describe myself as a thinker or a feeler. Until that very moment, I had never really considered the distinction. As I began to turn my attention towards my feelings in that very moment, it wasn’t long before I began to sob uncontrollably. The catharsis was powerful and a lesson I carry to this day.
Self-Compassion and Mindfulness
During our therapy sessions, I also became aware of a vocal, brutal, and persistent inner self-critic. I could hardly believe some of the negative chatter occurring mindlessly in the background of my existence. As I became more aware of this voice, I searched the internet and discovered resources on self-compassion and mindfulness; a relatively new avenue of therapy that synthesized western psychology with eastern meditation practice. I bought two books on the subject; one by Dr. Kristin Neff called Self-Compassion and the other by Dr. Christopher Germer titled The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion. In many ways, their books were transformative, as if they were written just for me. I was introduced to an eye-opening world of compassion and self-care, with strategies to address the inner critic through mindfulness; a consciousness that could be developed through meditation.
Dr. Neff’s guided meditations provided a safe place for me to experience the emotions I had always avoided; to acknowledge and feel them, but also let them go. The earliest lesson of my meditation experience was the idea of impermanence; thoughts, feelings, the body and environment were in constant flux. The realization allowed me to safely disconnect from my experience and observe; to feel difficult emotions without attaching to them; that they may visit now and again but would never stay. Most of us understand intellectually that nothing lasts forever. After all, the saying is borderline cliché. However, to truly believe, we need to feel it and become fully conscious of impermanence on a moment to moment basis.
Saying Goodbye to Anxiety
During meditation, a thought would enter my consciousness along with the corresponding feeling, and then vanish as another thought came to replace it. Impermanence. I noticed that even in the depths of pain, there were moments of peace and joy that weaved through the sorrow. I began to understand that my difficulties were temporary; that my challenging emotions weren’t constant or eternal; that even within a painful life chapter, there were moments of laughter and love.
I realized that anxiety was an emotion based on possible future events. In practicing meditation, I became more adept at focusing on the present where anxiety had no power. Only when my thoughts wandered to pending possibilities could anxiety return. However, the lesson wasn’t to avoid thoughts of possible future events.
After all, meditation and mindfulness teach the gentle acceptance of any phenomenon; whether thoughts of yesterday, today, or tomorrow; sounds or physical sensations; or feelings. But if my thoughts wander to a pending event and invite anxiety to return, I acknowledge the presence of my old friend, but also recognize his impermanence and why he returned. I kindly smile, shake his hand, and wave goodbye as new phenomenon inevitably come to replace him.
Most of my adult life was marked by running away from anxiety; ignoring and avoiding it. However, I found a far more successful path in turning toward anxiety; getting to know and understanding it; becoming its friend; a friend that may visit occasionally but never stays; such is the comforting truth of impermanence.