Eckhart Tolle explains how to deal with anxiety and depression

What if overcoming anxiety and depression is easier than we make it out to be? As someone who has regularly faced anxiety and depression over many years, I understand how it can feel impossible to get out of those downward, negative spirals. And they sometimes last weeks, months, or more.

Dealing with anxiety and depression is no trivial matter, especially episodes that last for extended periods of time. In my quest to overcome anxiety and depression, I’ve explored different ways to get out of it – and am starting to challenge my old beliefs about both.

In this article we’re going to look at how Eckhart Tolle recommends that people deal with anxiety and depression. It starts with an awareness of our thoughts, acceptance of the situation we’re in, and practicing presence with our current experience. The process involves the ego, our pain-body, networks in our brain, and a practiced presence of “the now.”

The beginning of anxiety and depression

Before we get into Eckhart Tolle’s process for dealing with anxiety and depression, we need to look at the root: the ego and the pain-body. Both are components of living as a human being that are inescapable but we can learn to manage them.

Anxiety and depression are both complex matters that should be looked at through a medical and a spiritual lens together, not one or the other exclusively.

Where does anxiety come from?

Dillon Browne, Ph.D suggests that anxiety disorders occur “when a person regularly feels disproportionate levels of distress, worry, or fear over an emotional trigger.”

Causes of anxiety include a combination of environmental factors, genetics, medical factors, brain chemistry, and use of/withdrawal from illicit substances. Anxious feelings can come from internal or external sources.

What causes depression?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) defines depression as a “common but serious mood disorder. It causes severe symptoms that effect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, or working.”

Depression can be caused by abuse, medications, conflict, death, loss, genetics, major events, personal problems, serious illness, substance abuse, and more.

Are you at risk right now?

If you are dealing with anxiety or depression and feel you may be at risk for self-harm or need support, contact a medical professional even as you explore Eckhart Tolle’s recommendations for dealing with anxiety and depression. Click here for help finding trained specialists on mental health.

Eckhart Tolle on anxiety and depression

The author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle has a very useful way of understanding what anxiety is and how to deal with it when it arises.

He refers to the concept of the “painbody”, which is an old emotional pain living inside of you. It may have accumulated from past traumatic experiences and sticks around because these painful experiences were not fully faced and accepted the moment they arose.

By understanding the painbody and how to accept your experience in the present moment, you’ll be much better able to deal with anxiety and live a much better life.

The painbody gets amplified by the ego

According to Tolle, the painbody lives in human beings and comes from the ego:

“When the ego is amplified by the emotion of the painbody, the ego has enormous strength still – particularly at those times. It requires very great presence so that you can be there as the space also for your painbody, when it arises.”

This is everyone’s job in this life. We need to be there and recognize our painbody when it shifts from dormant to active. At that moment, when it takes over your mind, the internal dialogue we have – which is dysfunctional at the best of times – now becomes the voice of the painbody talking to us internally.

Everything it tells us is deeply influenced by the old, painful emotion of the painbody. Every interpretation, everything it says, every judgement about your life and what’s happening, will be totally distorted by the old emotional pain.

If you are alone, the painbody will feed on every negative thought that arises and get more energy. You end up thinking about things for hours, depleting your energy.

Eckhart Tolle explains how we experience emotions like anxiety, stress or anger:

“All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”

Eckhart Tolle has an audiobook, Living the Liberated Life and Dealing with the Pain Body, that teaches more in depth on how to deal with the painbody, and discusses the conditioned mind which keeps people unhappy, helpless, and trapped.

How to catch your painbody

How can we be present and catch our painbody at an early stage, so we don’t get drawn into it depleting our energy?

The key is to understand that little situations trigger enormous reactions, and when that happens be present with yourself.

You need to create space inside yourself for the painbody, and then remove yourself from that space. Be present with yourself, and look at the situation from a detached place.

As Tolle says:

“If you are present, the painbody cannot feed anymore on your thoughts, or on other people’s reactions. You can simply observe it, and be the witness, be the space for it. Then gradually, its energy will decrease.”

Tolle says the first step to enlightenment is to be an “observer” of the mind:

“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not “the thinker.” The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.”

Let’s now dive deeper into Eckhart Tolle’s insights on the ego and pain body for dealing with depression and anxiety.

What is the ego?

In the context of this article, “ego” is the false or limited perception of yourself. The “ego” is a different side of “you” that doesn’t live on the same wavelength of consciousness as your “higher self.”

The ego serves the purpose of helping us stay alive, but can only use the information it has experienced from the past or witnessed in others. Although this makes the ego sound negative, the ego is important for survival and is responsible for getting us to where we are today.

The ego loves to have an identity.

When you identify yourself with a title or a feeling (e.g., using “I” language), you are most likely speaking from an egoic place. Do you identify yourself in one of the following ways?

  • I am a business owner
  • I am diseased (or) I am healthy
  • I am strong (or) I am weak
  • I am wealthy (or) I am poor
  • I am a teacher
  • I am a father/mother

Take note of the “I am” language in the above examples. What might your “I am” statements be for you?

Priorities of the ego

Your ego is unaware of the true source of who you really are within. The ego puts more value into the following:

  • What we own
  • That status we have
  • Currency we’ve gathered
  • Knowledge we’ve obtained
  • How we look
  • How healthy we are
  • Our nationality
  • Our “status”
  • How we are perceived

The ego needs to be “fed” information, observations, and experiences that make it feel “safe.” If it does not receive these, then it starts to feel as though it’s “dying” and triggers more fearful thoughts and behaviors.

We often go through cycles of identifying as something, protecting the identity, and getting more evidence that we are that identity so that the ego feels like it is “alive.”

How the ego affects our tendency to be anxious or depressed

From this viewpoint and understanding of the ego, it’s easy to see how you can become anxious or depressed when:

  • You don’t meet certain standards (created by you or someone else)
  • You get sick or injured and your “beauty” is marred
  • You become chronically ill and can’t do the same hobbies or work
  • You lose passion for a career you’ve spent decades on
  • You miss the “once in a lifetime” opportunity
  • You lose a job and go bankrupt

What happens when you lose your egoic identity

When you (the egoic part of yourself) can no longer identify as something, the fearful egoic part of you will go into fight-or-flight trying to protect what you still have while simultaneously reaching for the next thing to identify with. To the ego, when these things happen it can literally feel like you’re dying.

To the ego, it doesn’t know what it’s like to live without those identities. If you have always identified as one thing and that one thing is ripped out from beneath you without any idea on what you’ll do about it … then it’s only natural to feel anxious and depressed.

The longer you sit in that anxiousness and depression, the more acclimated your ego gets to that way of thinking and behaving. Now all of the sudden, the ego has a new identity:

“I am anxious and depressed.”

So what does the ego do? It holds on for dear life to this new identity.

The “pain-body” is the source of your anxiety and depression habits

Inside of each of us is a “pain-body” that is responsible for many of our negative feelings and circumstances, including the thoughts we have about ourselves, our interactions with others, and our beliefs about the world or life.

The pain-body lies dormant inside each person, waiting to come to life. The pain-body can be triggered into an active state from minor and significant situations, causing havoc in our minds and in our interactions with others – often without realization.

The pain-body is formed when you have a significant negative experience and did not fully deal with it when it showed up. Those experiences leave a residue of negative pain and energy in the body. The more experiences you have (or the more severe they are), the stronger the pain-body becomes.

For most people, this pain-body can be dormant (inactive) 90% of the time, springing to life in specific situations. Someone who is deeply unhappy or unsatisfied with their life may have a pain-body that is active 90% of the time.

Let’s take a pause right now and consider the anxiety or depression we’re facing, what our beliefs are about ourselves and the world, and how we interact with others. Is it positive? Is it neutral? Is it negative?

How often is your pain-body active versus dormant?

If you have a strong pain-body, chances are the language and beliefs you have about yourself are not that positive. You may have spurts of positivity and empowerment within your internal dialogue and behavior, but the average or majority may be negative.

When the pain-body is active, it can manipulate your thoughts into thinking that:

  • People are out to get you or going to take advantage of you
  • You are “below” other people
  • You will never be able to “overcome” these anxious and depressive feelings

An active pain-body can trigger behaviors that cause you to:

  • Snap harshly at other people (even if they did something minor)
  • Feel overwhelmed and unable to move forward or take action at all
  • Unintentionally sabotage your situation even further

Take a moment to learn what your own signs, behaviors, or thoughts are for your pain-body. What do you think caused your pain-body to develop in your past?

The impacts of the pain-body

The pain-body normally lies dormant (inactive) in the body until it is triggered. The worst part is that we often do not realize when the pain-body has switched to an active state. When the pain-body is active it takes over the mind by creating internal dialogue that we start to identify as.

The pain-body doesn’t have a clear picture of the current situation, using only painful experiences from the past. Its viewpoint can be heavily distorted and when you’re alone with the pain-body it can greatly deplete your energy, leaving you weak and susceptible to do, say, or think something negative.

The longer your pain-body exists, the harder it is to realize when it’s active.

Eckhart Tolle suggests that “When the ego is amplified by the emotion of the pain-body, the ego has enormous strength still – particularly at those times. It requires very great presence so that you can be there as the space also for your pain-body, when it arises.”

In order to deal with the pain-body and the ego, Eckhart Tolle says that we have to experience the death of our ego. This can be achieved by doing the following three things.

1. Become aware of the pain-body

To “die before we die,” as Eckhart Tolle puts it, and weaken anxiety and depression, we need to raise our awareness. Like any other muscle and skill it will take time to develop. Give yourself grace as you practice.

Anytime the pain-body becomes active, it’s an opportunity to practice becoming aware of it.

Signs that the pain-body has become active (from its dormant state)

  • You make assumptions about a person or situation without any evidence
  • You react aggressively towards someone (even in a small situation)
  • The situation feels overwhelming and you don’t believe you can overcome it
  • You crave for other people’s attention
  • You think “your way” is the only way and you don’t give any thought to others’ input
  • When talking to other people, you feel very “tense” (e.g., in the jaw)
  • When confronted by someone or a situation, you feel “tunnel visioned” and hyper-focused on them or the situation (and can’t “see” what’s going on around you)
  • You have trouble looking people in the eyes when talking to them
  • Your beliefs are negative or disempowering by default
  • You go out of your way to “get back” at someone
  • You tend to “yell” at other people instead of trying to understand

Any feelings of unhappiness can be a sign that the pain-body is becoming active. In an excerpt from The Power of Now (by Echart Tolle), the pain-body can take multiple forms of depression, rage, anger, a somber mood, inclination to hurt someone or something, irritation, impatience, a need for drama in your relationship(s), and more.

What are your pain-body behaviors and triggers?

Each person has their own unique pain-body related triggers and behaviors. Think about what your “active pain-body behaviors” are.

  • Is it internal dialogue that is self-defeating?
  • Do you snap at people?
  • Do you throw in the towel before you even start?

With new understanding of your personal triggers and behaviors, practice becoming aware of when the pain-body becomes active. Even if it was hours ago, acknowledge it. This is the process of training your brain to look for the behavioral and thought patterns associated to the pain-body.

Your awareness skills improve the more you practice

As you develop better awareness skills, you’ll be able to catch yourself and the pain-body’s internal dialogue sooner as it’s triggered. Eventually you will have the awareness to catch the pain-body as it becomes active and stop or change behavior before you commit to old habitual behavior.

Eckhart Tolle says that “everybody’s job in life is to be there and recognize our pain-body when it goes from dormant to active and takes over the mind.”

We should, as he says, become an “observer of the mind.”

Eckhart Tolle continues:

“The beginning of freedom is the realization that you are not “the thinker.” The moment you start watching the thinker, a higher level of consciousness becomes activated. You then begin to realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of that intelligence. You also realize that all the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind. You begin to awaken.”

Here are a few tips to increase awareness of your pain-body:

  • Ask yourself, right now, is my pain-body active or dormant? Increasing your awareness starts right now in this moment.
  • Continue to ask yourself if your pain-body is active or dormant anytime you think of it.
  • Create an “awareness trigger” that will remind you to ask if your pain-body is active or dormant. You can use a colored pen/sharpie to put a “dot” on your wrist, write a letter (such as “P” for pain-body), or wear a loose rubber-band on the wrist to help create “reminders.” Anytime you see the “awareness trigger,” think about the pain-body and what state it’s in.
  • Periodically look back at your interactions and behaviors throughout the day to see if you had talked, thought, or behaved from an active pain-body.
  • Ask someone to check-in with you periodically about your day and if the pain-body was active.

Practicing awareness will shorten the gap between when the pain-body is active and when you notice it, which is crucial for making change.

2. Fully surrender to your situation

For anxiety and depression sufferers, Eckhart Tolle recommends that you surrender to your situation and current state in life. This is why awareness is the first step, so that we can have better clarity of what our situation is. As you practice becoming aware of the pain-body, it increases your ability to be aware of other areas in your life.

Eckhart Tolle goes on to say that the majority of problems we face are a result of how the mind interprets circumstances and NOT because of the circumstance itself. People create a story in their mind  about the situation without realizing it. (Hence the need for awareness.)

Tolle jests that “we call people crazy who talk out loud to themselves, but we do it to ourselves in our own head” every day. There is a voice (conditioned thought) in our mind that doesn’t stop talking – and is almost always negative, guilt-tripping, doubtful, and so on.

Surrendering is the next step

Eckhart Tolle says that we must surrender to our current situation – including both the small daily life situations as well as the big life situations (which includes our current situation with anxiety and depression).

He shares an example of standing in line at a market. Usually if the line is long and not moving quickly, people get anxious and impatient. We attach a negative story to the situation.

To start “surrendering” and accepting the situation, Eckhart Tolle recommends asking, “how would I experience this moment if I did not add these [negative, impatient, anxious] thoughts to it? The negative thoughts that say it’s awful? How would I experience this moment [without those thoughts]?”

By taking the moment “as it is,” without any negative thoughts or added “story” to it, you simply experience it as it is. There’s none of the anxiety or negative, upset feelings because you have let go of the story that interprets this event in negative terms.

Going deeper with surrender

To surrender to any situation, you have to create space inside of yourself for the pain-body to exist, but then remove yourself from that space. While being present with yourself and the pain-body, you must be able to look at your situation from a detached place.

This happens on both a small and large scale.

Apply surrender or acceptance to your daily situations (e.g., standing in line at the market, on the phone with someone, generally feeling ‘down’) as well as life situations (financial, career, relationships, physical health, state of depression/anxiety, etc.).

Surrendering to your “life burden”

Eckhart Tolle emphasises surrendering to or accepting your current “burden” in life. Each of us has some kind of obstacle, situation, or experience that seems very challenging to that individual. Most people stress about the situation, imagining how things could have been different, and otherwise putting their attention on the way things “could” or “should” have been, or how they will be in the future.

In other words, we create expectations about how life should be for us.

Eckhart Tolle believes that we are given our “situation” for one reason or another and that it’s our life mission to fully surrender to that burden without expectation of it being a certain way.

Fully surrendering allows the egoic part of the mind to die, allowing you to be truly present with yourself, your soul, your body, and this moment.

This is what Eckhart Tolle means when he says to “die before you die.” Die an egoic death (surrender to your present reality) before you die physically. It frees you up to reveal who you really are and find the “peace that passes all understanding.”

Anxiety and depression begins to weaken as you go through this process of surrender and acceptance.

3. Become fully present with this current moment

The final step for dealing with anxiety and depression that Eckhart Tolle recommends is to be fully present with this moment, as it’s happening right now. Those that suffer from anxiety and depression may find this easier said than done – but let’s challenge that belief. It’s just a skill that requires persistence to develop.

When fully present in all ways, the pain-body can’t feed on thoughts or others’ reactions. When in a state of observation and presence, you create space for the pain-body and emotions connected to your anxiety and depression, resulting in the decrease in energy or power that it has over you.

Here are some tips that Eckhart Tolle recommends for becoming more present:

  • Avoid giving yourself too much input in your mind alone
  • When in conversation with others, spend 80% of the time listening and 20% of the time speaking
  • While listening, pay attention to your inner body – how do you physically feel, right now?
  • Try to “feel” the energy in your hands and feet – especially as you are listening to someone else talk
  • Continue to pay attention to the energy or “aliveness” in your body

The nervous system begins to detach itself from “thinking of the past or future” when you are focused on the current moment or physical sensations. A focus on your thoughts can detach you from the present experience.

Becoming more present – today

When putting Eckhart Tolle’s process into practice, I have found that my tendency to “worry about the past” and “be anxious about the future” was drastically reduced or eliminated entirely. It’s an ongoing practice. Different methods will work for different people – experiment with different strategies to see what is best to get you focusing on the present experience. Try a few of these:

  • Take a cold shower – this one will change your state immediately (it will be impossible to think of anything but that specific moment, especially if it’s your first time)
  • Meditation breathing exercises – this puts your attention on the sensory experience of breath
  • Walk barefoot outside – practice paying attention to how the grass, dirt, or concrete feels underneath your feet
  • Tap your skin, squeeze your wrist, or any other physical touch that you don’t normally do
  • Randomly shout out loud – especially if you’re not the type to be loud
  • Pay attention to how the water feels when washing your hands or taking a shower
  • Consciously notice how various textures feel under your fingers (clothes, furniture, food, etc.)

This article with 5 meditation techniques recommended by Thich Nhat Hanh is helpful for rewiring the brain to be more present.

Networks of the brain

In this 2007 study that defines the two networks of the brain that define how reference our experiences, it helps explain how we can be more present.

Lachlan Brown has a great video recap of how this process works. Here’s the summary:

The first network is known as the “default network,” or narrative focus.

When this network is active, you are planning, daydreaming, ruminating, thinking. Or for many of us dealing with anxiety and depression: we are overthinking, overanalyzing and focusing on either the past (“I should/shouldn’t have done that!”) or the future (“I have to do this later”). We are not focusing on what’s happening right now, right in front of us.

The second network is known as the “direct experience network,” or experiential focus.

This network is responsible for interpreting experience through sensory information coming through our nervous system (such as touch and vision).

Which network are you operating from on average?

If you are thinking about what you have to get done later today: you’re in the first network (default network, or narrative focus). If you are conscious of a physical sensations (e.g., that cold shower): you’re in the second network (direct experience network, or experiential focus).

Those that suffer from anxiety and depression likely spend a significant amount of time in the first network of their brain due to the amount of time they spend overthinking and overanalyzing situations.

Using the two networks to your advantage

These two networks are inversely correlated, meaning that the more present you are in one network, the less you are in the opposite. For example, if you’re washing dishes but your thoughts are on a meeting coming up tomorrow, you may be less likely to notice the cut on your finger because your “direct experience” network (the second network) is less active.

Inversely, if you intentionally put your focus on incoming sensory data, such as the feeling of the water on your hands while you wash, it reduces activation of the narrative circuitry in your brain (in first network).

This means that you can directly influence how present you are by putting your attention on what you notice through the senses (touch, sight, smell, etc.). When you are more present through this second network (direct experience), it reduces the activity in your brain that is responsible for overthinking and stress.

In short: you can reduce states of anxiety and depression by being more aware of the sensations of your current experience.

Here’s what Eckhart Tolle says:

“Focus attention on the feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it – don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge or analyze. Don’t make an identity for yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you. Become aware not only of the emotional pain but also of “the one who observes,” the silent watcher. This is the power of the Now, the power of your own conscious presence. Then see what happens.”

This is why meditative breathing exercises can work when you’re overthinking, because you are putting your focus on the sensory experience of your breath or heartbeat.

Psychological fear encompasses your negative emotions with the pain-body

There are many “negative emotions” that are associated with anxiety and depression, including but are not limited to fear, worry, stress, guilt, regret, resentment, sadness, bitterness, any form of nonforgiveness, tension, unease, and more.

Almost all of these can be labeled under a single category of psychological fear.

As Eckhart Tolle explains in this LiveReal article as an excerpt from The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle:

“The psychological condition of fear is divorced from any concrete and true immediate danger. It comes in many forms: unease, worry, anxiety, nervousness, tension, dread, phobia, and so on. This kind of psychological fear is always of something that might happen, not of something that is happening now. You are in the here and now, while your mind is in the future. This creates an anxiety gap.”

Psychological fear (and all of the other negativity-based emotions like stress, anxiety, depression, etc.) are a result of thinking too much about the past or future and not enough awareness of the current moment.

Reducing negative emotions with presence

You can reign in negative emotions by putting awareness on what is happening right now. In other words: becoming aware, accepting the situation, and being present.

Eckhart Tolle also says:

“All negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. … all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and … all forms of nonforgiveness are caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”

When you are fully present you will experience more positive emotions

By practicing awareness, acceptance, and presence, you invite in more empowering and positive emotional states, including love, joy, beauty, creativity, inner peace, and more.

When operating from our “direct experience network,” we are more in tune with our bodies, feelings, and the sensory information we’re taking in from our current experience. We’re able to “relax” and learn that what is happening right now is what truly matters.

Those positive emotional states arise from being present with this moment, NOT in “thinking” from the mind. We awaken to this moment of now – and that’s where all these positive emotions live.

Continue developing your ability to be present with right now

Dealing with anxiety and depression is a complex matter and should not be taken lightly. Use all the tools and resources available to you in order to work through your mental, physical, and spiritual challenges.

In summary, Eckhart Tolle’s recommendation for dealing with anxiety and depression are as follows:

  • Having awareness of your situation and pain-body
  • Surrendering to your burden and/or accepting your situation as it is, no expectations or complaints
  • Being present with what is happening right now – not in “thinking” about the past or future

If this process feels overwhelming, you can start by intentionally focusing on what you can FEEL through your senses, right now, without a narrative attached to it.

  • Do you feel the fabric on your arms?
  • The warm or cold glass in your hand?
  • The air passing against your nostril?

Let that be the start of being more present with THIS moment. From this state you can work your way into raising awareness, surrendering, and maintaining presence of this moment.

For Eckhart Tolle, embracing more of the “now” is the answer to dealing with anxiety and depression.

Learn more about Eckhart Tolle on his website or check out his books such as The Power of Now.

You may enjoy these resources for continued learning on awareness, acceptance, and presence:

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Austin Pranger

Hi. (: I’m Austin. I’m documenting my journey of life through mastering and teaching West Coast Swing, developing a local swing community, becoming minimalist, writing, and optimizing life.

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