Hello Anxiety, My Old Friend
Pain is inevitable and human.
We feel hurt, devastated, scared, sad, overwhelmed and disappointed. Philosophers and poets do a much better job than I possibly could in explaining this. But I am interested in what we do with that pain. It's important because inevitably we experience painful feelings and want to do something with them. We try to make them stop. We try to control them. We try to avoid them.
Something I notice in clients I work with (and definitely in myself), is that a painful feeling comes up and that all of the effort to make it go away actually makes it worse. The more effort we put into ignoring, avoiding, numbing, distracting and any other way of not actually being present to the pain, seems to make the pain more intense and last much longer.
For example, maybe you experience the pain of anxiety. You’re having an OK day and suddenly start feeling tightness in your chest and a feeling of dread. The thoughts start: “Not this! Not again!” “Why does this always happen to me?” “My day is ruined” and “I won’t be able to sleep tonight.” Your mind is racing and things get very intense, very quickly. Maybe you move into problem solving mode and start grasping for possible ways to make the anxiety go away. Or perhaps you start catastrophizing – predicting how this anxious feeling is going to affect you and your day. You start thinking about the last time you felt this anxious and how bad it was. You think about how this will never get better and that if only you could get rid of the anxiety, you could really have a life. You’re in a downward spiral.
Notice that two things occur in the above example. First, you experience some pain: a feeling of anxiety. Second, lots of things happen that make the feeling worse and more intense: you try to control and eliminate the feeling and you experience lots of negative and catastrophizing thoughts. Nothing helps, and in fact, things feel worse. There is the pain that is out of our control and the suffering which comes along because of our response to the pain.
Change the Relationship
My take as a therapist (and research show this to be true), is that while we can’t do much to eliminate the pain that comes with being human, we can do much to change the suffering that results from our interaction with it. In other words, pain is going to happen, but we can choose how we react. We can have a different relationship to our pain.
This new relationship takes practice and meditation is one of the best ways to change the relationship. One goal of a meditation practice is to learn to notice your feelings and thoughts and not react to them. This isn’t always easy work and it takes practice and skill to build. However, just noticing a feeling when it arises and welcoming it is an important step. If there are familiar painful feelings that you fight with, what would happen if you changed your relationship to them?
Here’s something to try:
When you notice a painful feeling, don’t try to do anything about it.
Breathe in a long slow breath and on the inhalation say to yourself: “Hello [insert feeling]
Breathe out in a long slow breath and on the exhalation say to yourself “My old friend.”
This isn’t magic and it takes practice, but what you are doing is slowing yourself down, slowing your response down, and welcoming the feeling rather than fighting it. You’ve had pain for years and in some ways, it is an old friend and it has something to teach you. Perhaps your mind will quiet down and you will have fewer thoughts that intensify the feeling. You may find that you are able to tolerate the feeling and continue with your day rather than the feeling taking over.