If you’re not a fan of anxiety, you’re not alone. I get it, the worry, dread and tightness can be so painful both physically & mentally. The good news is that there are other layers to it as well. Something can be both unpleasant and meaningful at the same time. The goal here is to shift our relationship with anxiety from avoidance and aversion to one of curiosity and meaning making. If it’s going to happen, we might as well get a little something out of it, right? Let’s look at a few ways to start shifting how we relate to our anxiety, and creating some more spaciousness.
A Compass For Valued Living
When anxiety presents itself, try asking yourself, “what values do I want to strengthen in the face of this?” Clinical psychologist Steven C. Hayes once aptly pointed out that if we look at our pain, we can find out what we value by looking at the flip side of said pain. So for example, with anxiety that pain may be rooted in the discomfort of worrying about what someone thinks of you. The flip side of that, with some digging, could be the value of self acceptance, or self-trust. Anxiety just helped alert you that self acceptance is something that's important to you, and that it needs some cultivating. Thanks for the roadmap anxiety!
Once you've identified what value needs to be strengthened, you can even turn it into a mantra to keep you on track; "may this worrying serve to awaken self acceptance, may I accept myself just as I am." Of course this varies with each person’s experience of anxiety, and there's likely more work to be done to strengthen the identified value in your life, but either way you've gained some more awareness and clarity about where you want to go.
Identify the pain point, what hurts the most about the situation you're experiencing
ask yourself, “what values do I want to strengthen in the face of this?”
Practice the mantra, "may this (pain point) serve to awaken (value). May I feel/practice/cultivate (value) in this moment".
A Bell of Mindfulness
We know how buzzy, tight, and energetic anxiety can feel when it arises. A mix of racing thoughts, clenching in the chest, maybe even some shakiness mixed in there. These strong sensations do a pretty good job of capturing our attention, so why not use them as little meditation bells ringing, calling for us to practice a bit of mindfulness.
Whenever any of the sensations you experience as anxiety come up, use it as an opportunity to pause, recognize what's there, and breathe into the anxiety for a few moments. This is an opportunity to shift our relationship with anxiety from avoidance, to open, spacious, curiosity. What tends to feel better, avoidance or curiosity? Try this as an experiment, next time you're feeling anxious try relating to your anxiety both with an attitude of avoidance, and one of curiosity and see how each feels.
When you notice you're feeling anxious, use this as an opportunity to practice mindfulness
View it as an opportunity to shift your relationship with anxiety from avoidance to curiosity
Experiment with how an attitude of avoidance towards anxiety feels vs one of openness and curiosity.
An Entryway to Growth
Now let’s put the above steps together; learning about your values and using anxiety as a chance to practice mindfulness, these are both steps toward growth. Researcher Carol Dweck refers to this as growth mindset. When we’re operating from a growth mindset, we’re seeing challenges or failures as opportunities to learn and grow. Through decades of research, Dweck has noted the numerous benefits of walking through the world with a growth mindset. She’s shown how it can lead to more persistence and a higher likelihood of embracing challenges instead of shutting down and simply seeing them as failures.
Tara Brach once mentioned using the mantra, “about to grow, about to grow” when turning towards difficult feelings. I think this mantra could be especially helpful when facing anxiety, especially paired with the two steps above. If you’re looking at anxiety as an opportunity learn about what values need strengthening, and using it as an opportunity to practice mindfulness, then I’d say growth is likely to be around the corner. Reminding yourself of this, can help build confidence and motivation to sit with the discomfort.
When learning about your values and using anxiety as a mindfulness bell, you're likely taking steps towards growth. Next time anxiety hits, try out the mantra, "about to grow, about to grow".
For more on growth mindset check out this site.
A Path Towards Feeling Connection
The smallness and tightness of anxiety can make us feel so alone. Often isolating thoughts pile on top of the original anxious feeling; "what's wrong with me?" or "why is this so easy for everyone else?" So many people are struggling with anxiety. Take a moment to reflect on this. Imagine all of the folks struggling with anxiety, fear, and worry across the globe, right in this moment. Send out a kind wish to yourself and to all these lovely people.
We can use these painful feelings thought patterns as a way to more deeply relate to others walking this path of humanness with us. Buddhist Nun Pema Chödrön puts it well in her book, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty & Change;
“ My pain will be the stepping-stone for understanding the pain of others.“
You're not alone in feeling these feelings, others feel this way too.
Reflect on all the people struggling with fear, anxiety & worry right now around the world, and send yourself and all these folks a kind wish.
"May we all hold our anxiety with kindness and love."
“May this pain serve to connect me to others who feel this way too.”
From Avoidance to Openness
So, obviously these things don’t make anxiety enjoyable, and they don’t necessarily get rid of the anxiety. But in my personal experience, and in witnessing the experiences of others, I’ve seen these reminders and reframes do something much more powerful than just erasing anxiety. I’ve seen them help turn anxiety into something meaningful. Continue to be curious, what ways have you been able to make meaning out of anxiety or other difficult thoughts and feelings?