“When the crowded refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. They showed the way for everyone to survive.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh
Without realizing it, I spent the majority of my childhood in a constant state of anxiety. In my early twenties, after a break-up with a man I dearly loved (albeit a little obsessively) I tried to medicate my grief with too many cups of coffee, bottles of wine, and many cigarettes.
I found myself one absurd sunny afternoon with shaky, sweaty hands, palpitations that felt like a heart attack, and an overwhelming sense that I was crazy. I called the emergency room and they informed me I was having a panic attack.
Although I tended toward depression and struggled with not wanting to get out of bed, I didn’t realize depression and anxiety can go hand in hand.
At one point, my doctor prescribed anti-anxiety medication, but it numbed me out to such a degree I could barely function. Realizing that this was not the answer for me, I made it a life-responsibility to care for and self-treat my anxiety.
Back then, if someone suggested that I find “peace,” I would toss it away with a roll of my eyes thinking they were some sort of hippie trying to save the planet, or a born-again with a bumper sticker of a white-winged dove. What was peace anyway? I was just trying to survive my inner turmoil.
Over time, I discovered more about what peace really meant for me. If I could be at peace, I knew then that I could better understand and have compassion for others. But I had to start small and stay simple in order to face the stressors of my life.
I began with the basics and slowly built my foundation over the years. My pattern for so long was trying to build my ship out at sea. The realization was to learn how to build my mast on stable ground.
Once I built a basic foundation, I got a little fancier: I kept journals to have a place to put my rapidly thinking mind. I learned how to meditate, slowly increasing from ten to forty-five minutes a day.
I studied and read countless spiritual books before going to bed (sometimes an excellent remedy for sleep) and found time each week to be creative. I changed my eating habits, learned how to eat more vegetables, legumes, grains, and olive oil, and juiced delicious concoctions to ground me.
Over a long period of time, I created a daily structure that would include all of the above and more, which solidly holds me and gives me inner-strength. Then, I could start thinking about the bigger things, like the views of the world and how to help make it a better place.
Today, inner-peace is tangible and real for me. Even when the going gets tough, even when life slams me with loss and difficulties, I have my tried and true structure to come back to.
Many of us don’t realize what anxiety is or know how to identify it when we have it. Instead we try to escape the feelings we carry inside, but this rarely works.
So what do we do when panic hits? Or how do we monitor and manage a low-stream anxiety that affects our coping mechanisms?
Here is a 4-step process to manage anxiety and create inner-peace:
1. Learn to identify the anxiety as it is happening and label it.
Inability to sleep, a racing mind, a constant stream of worries, future projecting, a debilitating concern about the state of the world, inability to focus or make decisions, or adding to lists of troubles in your mind are all clues that you are feeling anxious.
Once identified, label it rather than avoid or deny it. State simply to yourself or someone else, “I feel anxious.” Usually we resist stating this because anxiety suggests a state of vulnerability, fragility, lack of control, or weakness.
When we can accept this current of energy running through us as not really of us but a mind-imposed state, we are able to come closer to peace.
2. Once labeled, accept you may not be able to change it in this moment.
Sometimes when we identify our anxiety, we judge ourselves as wrong or bad and we do everything we can to make it go away. The effort that it takes to push, coerce, challenge, or force anxiety to decrease will cause it to increase even more.
The trick is to allow it to be there without having to do anything with it. With experience, we learn to trust that this feeling will pass.
On average, a full-blown panic attack lasts twenty minutes. Seemingly steady excitability will come and go. So remain aware of the moments when it has ceased. This will help you override the mind that wants to create more fear in an actual moment of calm and peace.
3. Accept the things you can change in the moment and make loving self-serving choices.
Unconsciously or consciously we try to self-medicate our anxiety. We reach for an alcoholic drink to relax or a soda or coffee to help us push through. We may smoke or eat sugar and junk food to try to ground or fill a perceived transparent hole, but in truth it does exactly the opposite
Take a break from stimulants until you have a sturdy foundation to indulge again with balance.
A basic code of rules:
- Sleep six to eight hours a night. If you can’t sleep, set a bedtime and waking-time and stick with it, even if you are in bed awake. Create a quiet environment and learn to be comfortable with it (meaning no pre-bed TV). After some time, maybe a few nights, your body will learn to let go because it will have no other option.
- Get your body moving. Take a brisk walk, a yoga class, shoot some hoops, or ride a bike for at least 20 minutes a day.
- Eat healthfully. Cut out sugar and processed foods.
- Take your vitamins.
- Drink lots of water.
- Get outside and connect with nature. This will ground you.
4. Still your mind by putting your attention on something else.
When we feel anxiety, we often sit in one place and mentally spin. We can talk with friends trying to rid ourselves of our feelings, fears, and worries, hoping someone else can qualm our nerves for us, or we can isolate and combust within.
To productively handle anxiety as it arises, put your attention on a task that will focus the mind or calm it. Pay a bill that is due, do a load of laundry, go buy groceries, engage in an activity with your hands, or draw yourself a hot bath.
It helps if the task does not require too much mental concentration. And if you are busy or overwhelmed with the things you have to do, concentrate only on the task at hand.
By humbling ourselves to admit we may not have the answers to our problems we can learn to trust at some point we will be guided, we will be led.
It takes time, courage, and determination to create a sturdy foundation. But when we do, we can rest finally in the palm of peace because we know at any given moment we can always rely upon it and feel safely held in the end.
Photo by The Wandering Angel