Anxiety. We’ve all experienced it before.
For some, it’s small. For others, it’s crippling.
But whenever it does come our way, one thing remains true:
The more we start worry about the anxiety itself, the worse it gets.
It can become such a viscous circle that it seems like it will never stop.
And the problem we’ve all experienced is that the harder we forcibly try to stop anxiety the worse it becomes.
So, what can we do?
According to Buddhism, there are a few mindful tricks and principles to understand that can help us out.
1) Find calmness through acceptance
When anxiety and stress hits, it can be hard not to let overthinking get the better of you. However, there’s a great piece of advice from Zen master Shunryu Suzuki that could help us all.
If you’ve ever tried to control your thoughts, you’ve probably realized that more thoughts seem to arise. It’s almost like putting out fire with fire, even though it seems like the logical thing to do.
Zen master Shunry Suzuki says that “if you want to obtain perfect calmness in your [practice], you should not be bothered by the various images you find in your mind. Let them come and let them go. Then they will be under control.”
The teaching is direct – we simply watch our thoughts, giving them plenty of room. We don’t try to control or shove them aside. Instead of treating them like we were the thought police, we instead act like a more casual observer.
The same goes for the discomforting bodily feelings caused by anxiety. Simply accept that they’re there.
According to Buddhism, accepting the “pain” causes less suffering than struggling vainly against it.
But it’s important to remember that “acceptance” is an active process. It must be practiced.
It does not mean you like or want whatever it is you’re accepting. Rather, you’re choosing to allow it to be there when you can’t change it in that moment.
To give yourself permission to be as you are, feel what you feel, or have experienced what you’ve experienced without creating unproductive shame or anxiety.
It can take effort at times, but every time you practice acceptance towards something, you create and strengthen neural pathways in your brain, facilitating ease in the future.
2) Accept change
According to Suzuki, the underlying key to reducing anxiety is to accept change:
“Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transiency, we suffer.”
Everything changes, it’s the fundamental law of the universe. Yet, we find this hard to accept. We identify strongly with our fixed appearance, with our body and our personality. And when it changes, we suffer.
However, Sazuki says we can overcome this by recognizing that the contents of our minds are in perpetual flux. Everything about consciousness comes and goes. Realizing this in the heat of the moment can diffuse fear, anxiety, anger, grasping, despair. For example, if your anxiety is bad at a given moment, you know that eventually it will change. It has to.
Here’s a quote from Buddhist master Peme Chodron on the beauty of accepting change:
“When you open yourself to the continually changing, impermanent, dynamic nature of your own being and of reality, you increase your capacity to love and care about other people and your capacity to not be afraid. You’re able to keep your eyes open, your heart open, and your mind open. And you notice when you get caught up in prejudice, bias, and aggression. You develop an enthusiasm for no longer watering those negative seeds, from now until the day you die. And, you begin to think of your life as offering endless opportunities to start to do things differently.”
3) Mindfully focus on your senses
Another strategy that can help with anxiety is to ground yourself by focusing on your senses, such as your breathe.
Neuroscience has found that people have two different sets of networks in their brain for dealing with the world: the default network and the direct experience network.
The default network is active most of the time, especially when we’re lost in our thoughts.
However, when the direct experience network is active, it becomes a whole other way of experiencing experience. When this network is activated, you are not thinking intently about the past or future, other people, or even yourself. Rather, you are experiencing information coming into your senses.
For example, if you are in the shower, you can focus on the warmth of the water hitting your body.
This interesting thing is that both these networks are inversely correlated. If you have an upcoming meeting while washing dishes, you are less likely to notice a cut on your hand, because the network involved in direct experience is less active. You don’t feel your senses as much.
Fortunately, this works both ways. When you intentionally focus your attention on incoming sensory data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry.
This is why meditation breathing exercises can work when you’re anxious, because you focus your attention on the sensory experience of your breathe. Your senses become more alive at that moment.
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