“I regard all neurology, everything, as a sort of adventure.”-Oliver Sacks
Anxiety underlies a million un-well moments.
Feeling trapped within ourselves. Can’t sleep, can’t let go. Tension unmanaged. Easier to shut it down than explore it. Easier to build a wall than dig in. And we don’t have a shovel, anyway.
Or do we?
Can we change our minds, our selves, or are we who we are and that’s it forever?
There is great comfort and great danger in saying “this is who I am.” Self-Acceptance is a joy. And yet so is the empowered breaking down of self, the loving self-examination, the active dissolution of our story for the purpose of seeing another possibility.
And so it is with understanding our anxiety–how can we accept it while seeking to release it? How can we break free of it, while also seeing that we ARE and ARE NOT the feelings we have? And what IS it, anyway?
To start with, we can view our mind through the lens of neuro-plasticity. How can we use the inherent adaptability of our brain to create change for ourselves? How can we identify the connections we have made that are not working for us, the narratives that are harming us, and build new ones?
When a cart drives over the same road many, many times it makes ruts. We can change the road, we can change the cart, we can get out and walk.
How can we build the belief that we can cope with life’s stresses and act on that belief, over and over, until it becomes true? Build new paths?
And can we see this as an opportunity, rather than just one more crappy thing we have to check off our to-do list?
Years ago, I was cleaning out a shack in the woods and came across someone’s scribbled notes from a Permaculture conference. One phrase stood out to me:
“Bare soil is in agony.”
Meaning, to me, that when we are managing land, leaving soil uncultivated is our way of inadvertently asking “weeds” to take care of the problem. We can prevent this by cover-cropping after the harvest. It gives back nutrients to the soil and prevents the “weeds” from colonizing, maybe also providing forage for pollinators too.
We are the soil, and we are the farmer. Anxiety is the weedy plants that appear in the absence of a cover crop. **Dear weed-lovers, I apologize for dissing weedy plants, allow me this metaphor please.**
I don’t believe that we will ever eliminate all anxiety, nor should we. One weed doesn’t spoil the farm. An occasional burst of worry is warranted, especially if we did indeed leave the oven on, forget to pick up cat food or fail to save the planet. Anxiety is a perfectly normal response to being an animal in this world. But, like weeds, it can quickly take over, push other things out of the way-like joy and rest- and steal all of our Nitrogen.
OK, so how do we shift this?
It is a lifelong process of unraveling and re-raveling, examining our narratives and finding our place within an admittedly f-ed up culture, and working our asses off. It’s about believing in possibility. And it’s about asking a lot of questions.
I’d like to share a few strategies that have worked for me, to get you started. I take a harm reduction approach: Every action that reduces the harm is worthwhile. Strategies are our cover crops and we cobble together those that work for us into a system of successful coping that turns into who we are.
-Use neuroplasticity. It is exciting to realize that the brain is not static, but dynamic. Your body is dynamic. Your systems are dynamic. Your stress response is dynamic. There is a lot of potential in this idea!
“Capacities of resilience are innate in the brain, and develop in interactions with other resilient brains.”-Linda Graham
Essentially, coping with stress is something we can get better at! The stress response is like a muscle we can exercise. Our brain can forge new connections. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life. So talk to your brain. Tell it “I made this association, and I can destroy it!” Tell it “Hey, we are forming new connections! Isn’t this great?” And then do it.
-Use the pharmacy within. Remember the experiment with the rats who could press for cocaine? Your body is the rat’s cage. Press the lever and your brain will release your own innate drugs. For free! (kinda.) The point is, Chemistry is real and can be used to our advantage. To learn abut your levers, check out the book Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Graziano Breuning for a basic introduction, Spark by John Ratey, and/or look up neurotransmitters.
-Use mindfulness. Ah, yes. The easiest and yet the hardest. Self-awareness. Asking questions of ourselves. Who am I? Is this me? Does it matter? Does anything? Mindfulness is bringing awareness to our lives, it is meditation, moving meditation, body scans, mantras(see below).
-Breathe. It is a bit of a cliche, but breath truly is a powerful tool for centering, for re-embodiment and for getting into the moment. Breathe deeply, breathe consciously, breathe ecstatically. I know there is a lot of New Age writing that says “you are breathing wrong” and it’s accusatory and obnoxious. Just ignore that. You are choosing to find your best breathing because you want to, not because you”should”. You forget, and you return to it, over and over. Breath is something that is always there for us to discover.
-Use mantras. So mantras can be cheesy. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make ones that work for us and use them as we see fit. It’s just self-coaching, and it’s useful. I have a few of my own, but I also suggest generating one or a few that are specific to you and your needs. Remember it, or write it down and carry it around with you.
For me, mantras are not magical thinking. They are not the self-delusion that we create our own universe, or that we are affecting the world with our thoughts, attracting money or lovers or vibes. They are self-coaching for the purpose of shifting our perspective and getting unstuck from feedback loops.
My current favorites are:
- “What if there is no problem?”-from a meditation by Loch Kelly
- “You are letting go beautifully.” -from a class with Jill Miller
- “I have everything I need right now.”
- “Just be curious.”-from a talk by Pema Chodron
- “I’m plasticizing!”
-Avoid triggers. I hesitate to mention this, as I believe that ideally a resilient self can take on triggers and keep going. But while we are working on anxiety reduction, it makes sense to identify what increases our anxiety. And in the case of traumatic roots of anxiety, we need to make our own decisions about how much avoidance we need. It’s not about hiding from our problems but from actively choosing to reject the aspect of our culture that seriously suck and contribute to unwell states.
SOMETIMES IT’S ACTUALLY NOT YOU THAT IS THE PROBLEM.
For me, I noticed that a lot of media was a trigger. If I watched Law and Order I was more likely to feel like a potential victim. We don’t always realize how we are internalizing messages. I try to avoid television, over-caffeination, big box stores. You might have different examples. I have been able to challenge some anxiety triggers though, and I do suggest that over a longer term if resilience is a goal.
-Use movement as an outlet. I don’t believe that the opposite of anxious is calm. I think calm can be over-rated in our culture. Suppression. Sit still. Don’t disturb anyone. Especially for ladies, “keep calm” seems to be this holy grail that we medicate ourselves into. We get stuck in stillness. Well, F that. What if we are too calm, too still? What if humans need to bash things, run up hills, pick up something heavy on occasion? We do. I think our bodies need a challenge and I strongly suggest we provide one. Seriously.
-And then there is the other movement. Wandering around. Time in nature! Walking meditation. Foraging. Dance. Swimming. Gardening, even. whatever helps you get into the healing “flow state”.
-Body stuff. The body and mind are connected, and can’t be looked at as 2 separate things when dealing with anxiety. Try active release of tension via fascial release, bodywork, movement practice. (such as yoga)Try to find where you store tension and let go of it in whatever way works for you. Rolling it out, maybe. It’s about noticing. Notice what creates tension for you. Notice where it goes. Notice how you feel about it. How about alignment? Are you in a prey posture? Are you grounded? Do you feel sturdy, connected to the ground? Expansive? Strong or weak? The body is in conversation with the mind.
-Use systems thinking. Have you ever gone to take a photo of someone or something, and realized you were cutting off the head/roof/Grandma/sunset/etc? And you took a step back, or used a wider lens, to fit more of the picture in? That.
It is gaining a wider perspective on something, consciously, in order to fit more into the frame of yourself and see things better.
-Ask questions, or Kondo yourself. Marie Kondo is an infamous organizer who wrote a book about getting rid of basically all of your stuff. Which I found a bit iffy. But her strategy of thanking an object for serving you, telling it “You don’t really serve my needs now” and letting go of it is a great metaphor here.
We can ask ourselves: Is this narrative working for me? Is it true? Is it my baggage? How is it helping me or harming me? Can I let go of it? Can I let go of it and float, freely, off into a wonderful place? Can I keep it light enough to travel?
And we can ask what defines us, what limits us. We can ask ourselves
“What would it look like to emerge from this anxiety?”
-Build resilience into the system. Humans are adaptable, resilient, amazing beings. If our self-conception is one of resilience, we may behave differently than if we live in a frame of brittleness, brokenness, victimhood or distraction.
Resilience, in this context, is building up our emotional immune system. A flexible, adaptable ecosystem is more able to handle the inevitable challenges and fix itself.
We can tell ourselves that an unresolved problem is just a problem waiting to be resolved. Or we can tell ourselves that we ARE our unresolved problems. See the difference? Operate from a place of flexible inner strength, and no person or event can take that away.
-Use herbs. I saved this for last on purpose. Herbal allies have a place in supporting our struggles. But the work is soooo much broader than just “taking something”. I will share my favorite herbs to help with anxiety–Milky Oats, Blue Vervain, Skullcap, Rose and Bitters. And of course we have a lot more, plus nutrition and micro-biome, to support this shift. The right herbs depend on the person, the place, the goals. They get us through. But it’s my opinion that herbs are of limited usefulness here without a broader strategy.
I’d like to leave you with an exchange from my favorite detective, Hercule Poirot and his crime-writer friend Ariadne Oliver.
“What do you think?”
“I think, Madame, that I take the little walk.”
It’s a journey, this undoing, this rebuilding, this long letting go. It’s a lot of little walks. We change our minds by changing our minds, every day. It is learning to balance ourselves, to hold multiple truths inside of ourselves, to forgive and to hold accountable. But believing in the possibility of a better self is the first step to achieving it. As Pema Chodron says, “The power is in the seeing”, and we start by seeing our anxiety for what it is, and seeking to dissolve it, over and over, every time it comes up on us, every time it pops up out of the dark spaces, every time it threatens to hold us hostage to ourselves. It gets raw inside the struggle. It happens to us and yet it IS us, and that is a powerful visual that leads us to seeing a path out of it, maybe the only path out of anything, which is right through it. Keep digging!
*And remember, if you are in a place where help is needed, there is never any shame in asking for it, seeking it out.