Learning to manage the underlying anxiety of life is key to stepping beyond its grip
Underlying much of what we do is a sense of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, doubt, or dissatisfaction.
And we react to this in so many unhelpful ways: We seek distraction, we eat unhealthy food, we procrastinate, and we get caught in a cycle of anxiety and unhappiness. We lash out at others, we dwell in our loneliness, and then we go into denial about it all.
If we could learn to deal with the basic anxiety of life, we would have much more ease—and far less struggle—in all that we do.
The Anxiety Underneath Our Problems
On Twitter, I asked people to share a problem they’d like me to write about. While the problems they shared were all very difficult, the undercurrent to all of them was the same. Each person had an external problem with an internal, underlying problem of anxiety, fear, or uncertainty. Let’s take a look at a few:
- Feeling left out, or a lack of belonging: We can all relate to this feeling of not belonging. Externally, the problem is that you’re not finding people you can connect with and not having that connection in your daily life. But on top of that, you add the internal problem of feeling like you’re left out and don’t belong. This is normal and it’s good to notice it when it comes up.
- Finding your passion and optimizing your potential: The external problem is that you have a job you’re not passionate about. Underneath that is the anxiety/dissatisfaction of feeling like you’re not finding your passion or optimizing your potential. We can all relate to this, too.
- Having chronic headaches (or other physical issues) holds you back from building a career and paying your way properly, affecting your self-worth: The external problem—bad headaches, leading to career or financial issues—is very real, and not easy to deal with. But on top of that, we add self-criticism—most of us do this, right?—self-doubt, and a downgrading of our self-image.
- Experiencing that phase of anxiety before big changes occur: The external issue is that we’re facing a big change, and then, because it’s a situation filled with great uncertainty, we feel anxious about it.
- Having PPSD—Post Political Stress Disorder: A lot of people are coping with dissatisfaction about the political scene right now, no matter what their views on the president might be. There’s the external situation of what’s going on, and then they add their dissatisfaction and uncertainty.
- Purchasing self-improvement books/classes/plans, but not using them: The external problem is not finding the time or energy to use materials you’ve bought, adding internal issues such as anxious feelings about not living up to your potential, not taking advantage of opportunities, and not doing what you hoped you’d do as well.
- Having an addiction to social media, videos, or your cellphone: The external problem is that distractions keep pulling your attention away from what’s important. But the underlying anxiety is that you feel addicted and that something is wrong with you for not being more focused. In addition, the addiction is probably a coping mechanism for dissatisfaction with the moment in front of you or fears in other parts of life.
- Getting over a breakup: The external problem—the end of a relationship—is overshadowed by the pain and dissatisfaction that follow the breakup. We might have frustration about not wanting it end, about not wanting to be alone, about how the other person acted, and about how we feel about ourselves after being dumped.
- Feeling helpless and empty for a reason you can’t identify: There’s likely to be an external situation that’s causing this vague feeling of emptiness. But the real problem is the feelings about it all: the uncertainty about it and the anxiety about wasting the time it takes to get over it.
I think we can all relate to these problems—both the external situation and the reactions that we have to them.
There’s a fundamental anxiety and dissatisfaction that runs through the human condition—about whatever we’re experiencing in life, about other people, and about ourselves.
So how do we deal with it all?
Where Does Basic Anxiety Come From?
It’s good to start by recognizing why we have this basic anxiety. It’s caused by wanting certainty and stability when life isn’t certain or stable. It’s about being dissatisfied with this fact, which then manifests in dissatisfaction with our situation, ourselves, and others.
Once we start to touch on this anxiety, face it with courage, and stay with it like a good friend would, we start to realize it’s not so bad.
If you sit right now for 5 to 10 minutes and just pay attention to your breath, you’ll likely notice the fundamental anxiety. It results in wanting to stop paying attention to the breath, wanting the meditation to be over, wanting to get on with the tasks of life, wanting distraction, thinking that the exercise is stupid, or wanting to think about problems you have.
But instead of running from this anxiety we suffer in life, what if we just stayed with it and paid attention to it? Then we could start to work with it.
Learning to Deal With This Basic Anxiety
Instead of trying to cope with anxiety by using distractions like food, shopping, alcohol, drugs, or Facebook, we’re going to find the courage to face it, with a smile.
Here’s how to work with it:
- Face the physical feeling. Drop out of the story that’s spinning around in your head and causing the anxiety. Instead, just be mindful of how your body feels. What does the anxiety feel like, and where in your body is it located?
- Stay with it and be curious about it. Don’t run, just stay with the physical feeling. Instead of rejecting it and wanting it to stop, just open up to it and see it with curiosity. What does it feel like? Does it change? What kind of reaction does your mind have to the feeling?
- Smile at it. Develop a feeling of friendliness toward the physical sensation of this anxiety. See it as one of the fundamental realities of your existence, and learn to be friends with it. See this as a chance to work with something that will be with you for your entire life, an opportunity to get comfortable with this discomfort. If you can do that, you’ll need your coping mechanisms a lot less.
- Open to a bigger space. Our normal way of relating to this feeling is by wanting to reject it, because we’re stuck in a small-minded, self-centered way of seeing it—I say this without judgment; it’s just something we do. Instead, we can start to touch the wide-open space of our minds—like a big blue sky—not a small space, but an expansive one. In this open space, we can hold the anxiety like a cloud against the backdrop of the blue sky, but not be lost in the cloud. We can see anxiety as a tangible thing, but one that is like a cloud: It’s temporary, it’s not that solid, it’s not all-encompassing, and it’s just floating by. This wide-open space of our mind is always available to us.
It’s that simple and yet it’s not always easy. Sometimes the anxiety we feel is small and just a bit of tightness in our chest once we investigate it. But sometimes it’s quite big, a looming depression or a manic energy that we just can’t tolerate. So face it in small doses, just for a minute, just for a moment. Then let yourself run. Continue to work with it in small, tolerable doses, until you start to trust that you’ll be OK if you face it and smile at it.
Once we start to touch on this anxiety, face it with courage, and stay with it like a good friend would, we start to realize it’s not so bad. It’s just something that comes up, like a ripple in a pond or like a breeze in a field, and it will go away. We don’t need to panic; we can relax, invite it to tea, and see that nothing else is required. Instead, we stay and see that this place of uncertainty we’re in is absolutely perfect as it is.