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Making Friends With My Anxiety

I’d always suffered from anxiety, and when I experienced recurrent miscarriages, it seemed to intensify those feelings.  Here’s my story about how mindfulness and self-kindness transformed my relationship with anxiety – from outright war, to acceptance and befriending. I’ve included excerpts from the personal journal (in italics) that I kept during this journey;  I hope this gives you an idea of mindful learning in action.

When our son was 18 months old, we suffered particularly devastating loss, which seemed to ratchet up my anxiety to new levels.  I was terrified of losing my son aswell, and I felt surrounded by threats to his safety.  I came to a point where I was hardly sleeping because I was getting up so often to check on him. Routine tasks were taking me a long time:  I would become paralysed, trapped in extra measures designed to eliminate any imagined risk.  I began to worry that my son would pick up on my anxiety and feel the world wasn’t a safe place.

One day, I had what I call a ‘What if?’ moment.  Faced with an everyday situation,  I stood paralysed, calculating how I could eliminate any risk  (bear with me if you’ve never suffered anxiety – I know that may not sound logical). And I suddenly wondered – ‘What would it be like to be free of all this, to just do these everyday tasks without a second thought?  What would a life that be like?’  This moment planted a seed of possibility.  Mindfulness had already helped me to cope with a level of sadness that I’d never have thought I could withstand.  So I wondered if I could also turn to my mindfulness practice to help with this now-debilitating anxiety.

Being a coach, I knew I’d have to build my confidence up slowly.  I decided to take small opportunities in daily life to challenge my usual responses.  That instead of always taking action to eliminate tiny or non-existent risks, I would practice noticing that and delaying my reaction.  I identified typical situations that I wanted to handle differently, and I used a journal to record my experiences both during meditations and in life.  My dream outcome was that “I would be a confident and relaxed parent. I would be able to do practical tasks with less effort, leaving me with more energy for having fun as a family. “

Soon, my awareness of what was happening in anxiety-provoking situations was increasing.  I found that during challenging situations, I was able to pause, and create just the tiniest bit of space before reacting.  And in that space, sometimes I could find a new way of seeing things, or the courage to do nothing, and wait for the clouds of panic to clear.

I was making room for a more balanced response. Here’s what I wrote just after one such situation.  “I was able to see that it was my anxiety I needed to tolerate, not an actual risk. Maybe this is what learning to trust feels like.” Mindfulness gives us more choice about how we respond to difficulty.  In my case I began making a choice between avoidant behaviours (which protected me from feeling anxiety), and ‘letting things go’ which exposed me to difficult feelings, but which I often felt was healthier all round for my son.  The fact that my ‘anxiety’ behaviours became a choice – rather than an unquestioned necessity – felt extremely liberating in itself.

I began relying on mindfulness to help me ‘ride out’ the intense waves of anxiety.  I would bring my attention to my breathing and try to just stay in the present moment rather than going into an imaginary and catastrophic future. Then, I noticed  “it’s like I can actually feel it start to subside physically.  Like it’s the physical ‘fight or flight’ response that’s been triggered, and that’s what changes and subsides. “  All this time, I’d felt like the key to reducing anxiety was to control external events, and now I was learning that I didn’t need to exhaust myself doing that!

Self-kindness also became crucial to letting my anxious feelings pass without getting trapped in compulsive behaviours.  At the time I reflected that “When I tolerate the anxiety, it’s like letting that part of me have a voice, listening to it and validating it. Once it’s been heard, it doesn’t need to shout at me any more.  And that’s the moment that the feeling of anxiety starts to subside.  It’s when I don’t want to listen, and get locked in a battle to shut out or disprove that voice, that I get stuck in anxiety and feel trapped and suffocated.”

This was the first time I began to understand what is meant by ‘befriending’ difficult feelings: “It was as if I had to first accept myself – all the parts of myself, including the anxious, the perfectionist and the vulnerable parts – and give them compassion just as they are, instead of believing that I only deserve compassion when I’ve calmed down/have fixed things/am feeling good about myself.”  

The impact of self-kindness is evident in my journey, as I noticed that “All the time I’m getting braver at tolerating my anxious thoughts and impulses without always acting on them, and more compassionate with myself when I do act on them”.  I found that the anxious part of me was only one part of me – and another voice would kick in saying ‘you can do this, you can cope’.  And I started to believe it.

Following these realisations, I noted in my journal that “I’m not putting off unpleasant tasks.  I’m accepting that I find them unpleasant, noticing the anxiety but doing things more efficiently – as I lose less time fighting with myself and just get on with it.  At the same time I’m being aware of my feelings, and encouraging myself compassionately for doing them even though I find them difficult.”  So tasks that had once seemed ‘too much’ had now become perceived as merely ‘unpleasant’.

Over time, my perspective became that  “I just feel much less ‘at war’ with myself in general in terms of my anxiety levels – like I’m struggling with myself much less, like I have space to breathe.  It just feels like less of an issue than it has been – like my anxiety isn’t interfering with living so much.”

I discovered that with a foundation of self-kindness in place, I was finally able to apply mindfulness skills to transform my relationship with anxiety.  I don’t tend to describe this journey as ‘overcoming’ anxiety, as I don’t see it like that anymore: I’ve released myself from that struggle with it.  Now I embrace anxiety as part of my emotional landscape, but one that no longer prevents me – or my family – from living fully.

Note – it may not be advisable to learn mindfulness for the first time if you are currently experiencing debilitating anxiety, and you may need therapeutic support from a health professional.

Has Mindfulness Become Yet Another Marker Of ‘Success’?

I’ve become a little wary of blogging about mindfulness recently; I fear I’m at risk of becoming something of a cliche, if I write another piece about how great mindfulness is, and how everyone should practice it.

Because it’s everywhere right now, isn’t it? And I do worry that it could be turning into yet another thing that people feel they have to achieve.

But life for most of us is hard enough without that burden.

I’m beginning to prefer to use the word ‘awareness’ – it doesn’t seem to carry the weight of expectation, there’s more room for not getting anything right.

We can grow awareness very very slowly, and we can become more aware without even having to change anything. The habits we’d like to change are often so deeply entrenched because the idea of doing anything different is, quite frankly, terrifying.

If what we’re shooting for is simply awareness, we really don’t have to change the habit until we’re ready: just bringing compassionate awareness to those times we catch ourselves in the act is enough. It’s more than enough. It kickstarts the process of real change.

Because with awareness, we start to truly understand our habits. We begin to see what it is that we’re avoiding (or seeking) through particular behaviour. This can show up in the things we actually do, but also in our mental and emotional patterns and habits. I speak here from personal experience – many of my own habits are attempts to escape uncomfortable feelings like uncertainty, confusion, insecurity or fear (to name just a few).

Once we have this kind of insight into our own patterns, a positive change can begin to unfold naturally. And that will likely not be a neat and tidy movement towards ‘success’. A gradual growth as a human being may occur that is meandering, back-sliding, acceptance-requiring – and quite astonishing.

What’s more, there is no particular end-point that we need to reach. In my own practice of ten years, the more awareness I’ve developed, the further away I’ve moved from needing to evaluate my own success, at anything – including meditation.

I hope that as mindfulness becomes more embedded into our culture, we can embrace it as a simple invitation towards greater awareness, as we tread this tricky and amazing path of being human.

If you liked this piece, you can find out how to explore my approach further here

Choosing Love Over Power

At some point I stumbled across the idea of ‘Love Mode vs Power Mode’. It made a big impact on me. I could quickly see how I operate from each mode in relationships with others. At work. As a parent. In close relationships.

I noticed that when I’m in power mode, that’s about trying to control someone else (usually in the service of making myself feel comfortable).

Love mode, on the other hand, is free of any such motive. I’m fully present to the other person as a being in their own right, and often I’m in service rather than in control.

And then there is the relationship we have with ourselves. The practice of self-kindness has helped me to shift from the power mode of self-improvement to the love mode of self-acceptance.

I first came across the poem below via Tara Brach (it’s credited as the words of Bapuji). To me, it’s an invitation to move more deeply into this space of self-love, whatever obstacles get thrown up along the journey.

“My beloved child, break your heart no longer.

Each time you judge yourself you break your own heart.

You stop feeding on the love which is the wellspring of your vitality.

The time has come, your time to live, and to trust the goodness that you are.

There is no wrong in you.

Your true essence is pure awareness, aliveness, love.

Let no one, no thing, no idea or ideal obscure this truth.

If one comes, even in the name of ‘Truth’, forgive it for its unknowing.

Do not fight. Let go. And breathe – into the goodness that you are.”

~ Bapu-ji

You can find various self-kindness practices on my meditations page.

If you liked this post, you may also be interested in these links:

How To Be Happy, Just As You Are

Why Mindfulness Needs Kindness

My resources site Lollipop Wellbeing

‘You Are Not Who You Think You Are’ (a poem)

 

 

 

 

 

You are not who you think you are

Said the voice in my heart

 

You are not the roles you play

Or the armour you wear

 

Beneath all that

Is something much more alive

 

The energy of fear

The energy of love

 

Waiting to be set free

Like my arrow flies loose from the bow

 

You are not who you think you are

You are more alive than you know

 

 

Making The Most Of Messing Up

Today didn’t go quite how I had planned.

I had planned a day trip with our son to a geology shop and museum in a nearby town. It would be – I thought – a nice easy short train trip and a chance to explore somewhere new.

What actually happened was that I didn’t check the trains beforehand and there was a rail strike, which meant far less trains were running. Then I miscalculated the walking distance between stations and we just missed our train. After waiting an hour for the next one, it got cancelled. By this time I’d also realised that the packed lunch I’d been organised enough to prepare was not in my bag, but left behind at home. Oh, and the kid-friendly restaurant I thought would be a good plan B had closed down…

My initial response was anger – at myself for messing up, at the rail company, at whoever I could blame. I managed not to say the f word out loud (though I may have said it silently to myself), and I may have actually stamped my foot in frustration. But it took less than a minute for a more mindful response to kick in. I could make a choice. I could either let the day be ‘ruined’, or I could open myself up to something unplanned.

As we wandered out of the station, my son practically squealed with delight to find that we’d emerged by his favourite city water feature – some streams with mini-waterfalls. Who says leaf racing is only for summer days? Following his lead, I quickly let go of any lingering disappointment, and found the joy in cheering on my leafy competitor. After that we headed into the nearby football museum for some air hockey, followed by lunch at the science museum, and what the boy described as some ‘quality time’ building with construction toys together.

Today didn’t go quite how I planned. It was much more fun that I could ever have planned.

For more writings, guided meditations and more, visit my resources site Lollipop Wellbeing