“Don’t try and save yourself. The self that is trying to be saved is not you.” ~Mooji
Three months ago I had a strange experience.
It wasn’t strange in that it had never happened before. It was strange in that it was unexpected. Unexpected in the way a hiccup comes up out of nowhere to interrupt a meal. No, actually, it was more unexpected in the way a sudden illness overtakes a period of health.
Just for a bit of context, over the last six months, I’ve generally been the calmest I’ve felt in years—maybe even my whole life. But recently this has come with a strange side effect. When negative emotions do arise, as they inevitably do, I’m sometimes even more reactive to them than I used to be.
So three months ago when I woke up abruptly in the middle of the night with a ball of anxiety in my chest it was, well, unexpected.
And my mind immediately kicked into overdrive.
“Why am I anxious?”
“Is there something I’ve forgotten?”
“Is there something coming up that I’m nervous about?”
“Am I sick?”
And then the most dangerous question of all:
“Have I really been anxious this whole time and the calm isn’t real?”
This question is very tricky. If I was a character in a movie, I’d been standing up out of my seat and yelling at myself on the screen, “Ignore it! Ignore it! You’re fine, go back to sleep!”
But it’s tricky because it feels like there a grain of truth to it; on some level we can all relate to that sense of doubt. Our minds tend to come up with explanations based on our feelings, so this sensation of anxiety was (unsurprisingly) causing my mind to come up with a story based on these feelings.
The whole ordeal lasted less than five minutes. Fortunately, in this moment of tension, I was mindful enough to see how far-fetched these thoughts were. I settled on a far more pragmatic explanation; I’d become so unused to feelings of anxiety, that when they did arise, they were a shock to the system, so my mind immediately tried to rationalize them.
And then I went back to sleep.
Moments like this one would come again, and what I needed to do was simple. Any five-minute mindfulness book would have had the answer.
All I needed to do to keep the calm was to not care that these thoughts and feelings were there. I just needed to be completely disinterested, to not touch anything in my mind. Following the instructions in a moment of distress, however, is much easier said than done.
So I remembered what I’d heard a yoga teacher say once in an uncomfortable pose where the students had their hands above their heads for a long time.
“Just tell your mind that things are going to be like this for the rest of your life. It’ll get bored of the pain and move on.”
I took that idea and started applying it whenever worries came up. I managed to convince myself that I didn’t need to fix anything and that feelings of anxiety were just really not that interesting. It worked out pretty well, so well in fact, that I thought I’d go into a little bit more detail of how I managed to do so and share it with you.
Here are five ways you can begin to accept anxious feelings and live a better life.
1. Accept that you can never know why you are experiencing anxiety.
As problem-solving creatures, when we experience discomfort we immediately try and understand why. But not everything in our lives has a straightforward answer. There are a multitude of factors that lead to anxious feelings, from genetics to work to relationships to diet, memories, and even the weather.
Trying to pinpoint one reason so that you can have a concise narrative in our minds is a lot less effective (and a lot more tiring) than simply accepting the fact that you don’t know why. This acceptance also allows you to focus your energy toward more practical, calm-inducing strategies such as journaling, yoga, and exercise. When we have more energy, we’re more alert, and this naturally makes us more engaged in our work and home lives, safeguarding us against anxiety and rumination.
2. Accept that anxiety is neither good nor bad.
Seeing your anxiety in a wider perspective is best illustrated with a Taoist story (origin unknown):
“There is an old farmer who had worked his crops from many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically.
“Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed.
“Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune.
“Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.”
To accept anxious feelings, try to treat them like the farmer in the story treated his horses. You never know what good may come from your anxiety! In fact, the calm in my life that I mentioned at the start of this article is a direct result of the meditation practice I started, and continued, because of anxiety.
3. Accept that everyone will experience some form of anxiety.
When we experience pain we’re hardwired to respond to it, and in that response our perspective is distorted. We become the center of the universe, because we are only feeling our pain in that moment, and not anyone else’s.
It can be calming and reassuring to know that everyone goes through periods of worry. There are billions of people who have dealt with whatever feelings are coming up in your experience, and there will probably be billions after you. So don’t by any means underestimate your capacity to handle the situation.
4. Let go of the idea that you shouldn’t have anxiety.
How would you feel about anxiety if everyone in the world had it? Or if you were told that it was a necessary and useful part of life? You’d probably worry about it a lot less. The idea that you shouldn’t have any feeling stems from the need for things to be better. If you can let go of the normative belief that anxiety is wrong, then your mind will naturally become less and less interested in it.
This goes hand in hand with the idea that anxiety holds you back in any way—you want to let that go too. Anxiety may, in fact, hold you back from an immediate action, but if we recall the Taoist story of the farmer and his horses, we can never truly know in what direction anxiety will take us.
5. Become bored with your anxiety.
This last one is the most difficult but the most important. Often anxiety is so painful that we become fascinated, obsessed even, with understanding and solving our worries. We want to get rid of the pain of anxiety as soon as possible.
Sometimes this is useful, as we come up with strategies to manage our emotions, but a lot of the time it validates the power of our anxiety and adds fuel to the fire. The mind will only focus on what it values; if you can manage to become bored with your anxiety, it will loosen its grip on your life.
The steps I’ve outlined in this article are, like I explained in my own experience, much easier said than done. I hope, however, that I’ve given you a slightly different approach you can take toward dealing with any negative emotions.
About Benjamin Fishel
Ben Fishel is a transpersonal psychotherapist. He has a background in neuroscience, counseling and existential psychotherapy and is on a mission to help people improve their mental health with cognitive science and spirituality. Ben offers online therapy worldwide (with the exception of Canada & the U.S.). You can book a FREE 15-minute call to see if you’d like to work with him—and don’t forget to follow him on Facebook for more of his essays.