“Watch your thoughts, they become your words;
watch your words, they become your actions;
watch your actions, they become your habits;
watch your habits, they become your character;
watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”
~~ Lao Tzu
Anxiety. Worry. Anxiety. Worry. Anxiety. Worry. Anxiety. Worry. Anxiety.
We are living in the age of anxiety, and none of us are immune to the daily toll it takes on our body, mind and spirit. The external environment of news, noise, weather changes, despair, horror, war and uncertainty chip away at our sense of safety and Self, and every day begins to feel like we are caught in the rinse and repeat cycle of the cosmic washing machine. Anxiety often traps us and makes us feel stuck in an endless rhythm of stress, sleeplessness, and worry. But what if we had a way to leverage our anxiety to help us solve problems and fortify our well-being? Instead of seeing anxiety as a curse, what if we could recognize it for the unique gift that it offers us?
“Shan you si” is a Chinese Medicine disease category that refers to a tendency to worry with continuous or excessive thinking. Worry and anxiety, preoccupation and obsessional thinking are the key symptoms of this disharmony. Chinese Medicine makes no distinction between thoughts and emotions as both are subjectively experienced sensations, and in fact, indicates that the pathology of many disorders of the physical body reside in the unprocessed emotions. According to the Nei Jing (Inner Classic) over-thinking and repetitive thinking causes the Qi to bind, inhibiting the easy flow of Qi, creating hindrances and obstructions. Sensations of “stuckness” and “congestion” begin to appear throughout the body, in forms of pain, discomfort, shallow breathing, insomnia, restlessness, irritability, digestive upset, headaches, tingling, numbness and more. Look at all the physical manifestations of worry!!! So when we are unduly stressed and worried, do we really have so many separate disorders in the body, that require specialists in fields of heart, belly and brain, or can we begin to imagine that the body is asking us, begging us to pay attention to our thoughts?
There are many definitions for anxiety:
A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. (Oxford Language Dictionary)
Intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Fast heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, and feeling tired may occur. (Mayo Clinic)
Generalized anxiety disorder involves persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities. This ongoing worry and tension may be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as restlessness, feeling on edge or easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension or problems sleeping. (American Psychiatric Association)
The statistics regarding anxiety are monitored and updated, with the latest showing that anxiety disorders are the highest reported mental health issue in the US with 42.5 million Americans claiming to suffer from this illness. (Mental Health America). None of this information surprises us, because as humans, we are experiencing the range of anxiety and its presentations every day, in a variety of ways. But when things seem to be so overwhelming, and anxiety and worry are presenting with increasing numbers on a global scale, where is the hope and optimism for being able to make our way with ease?
Dr. Wendy Suzuki, neuroscientist and NYU professor of psychology has discovered a paradigm-shifting truth about anxiety: yes, it is uncomfortable, but it is also essential for our survival. In fact, anxiety is a key component of our ability to live optimally. Every emotion we experience has an evolutionary purpose, and anxiety is designed to draw our attention to a number of negative emotions. If we simply approach anxiety as something to avoid, get rid of, or dampen, we actually miss an opportunity to not only manage the symptoms of anxiety better but also discover ways to improve our lives. Listening to our worries from a place of curiosity, instead of fear, can actually guide us onto a path that leads to joy. Dr. Suzuki says we might consider anxiety in a new way: it is NOT the rock you are carrying around on your shoulders or back, but more like a little kid, tugging at your sleeve, saying LOOK HERE – here is something that needs your attention!!
There are so many ways we express anxiety without actually saying the word:
Ready to snap
Anxiety is complicated and there are so many triggers that one size does not fit all of our lived experiences. Dr. Suzuki defines anxiety as “the feeling of fear or worry associated with a state of UNCERTAINTY” and with that definition of uncertainty as the root, we can now begin to understand the flutters in our belly, the rapid heartbeat, and our shallow breathing that is the warning sign our evolutionary brain is transmitting. In her bestselling book, Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion, Dr. Suzuki offers insights and practical applications for how to manage this human emotion and make friends with it. She suggests that your anxiety can be like an unwelcome roommate with whom you need to learn to manage, or even a person in your car who can be in the passenger seat, but you will not allow them to drive.
So how can we begin to redirect the energy of anxiety and create a new relationship with the body sensations so we feel more in tune with our thoughts and feelings? Dr. Suzuki suggests 2 simple tips that all of us are able to implement and practice:
- BREATHWORK: the science behind this is clear. The autonomic nervous system which keeps our bodies operating without our conscious input is also the system that responds to evolutionary wiring. So when we are anxious, stressed, or worried, it senses the “danger signals” and sends out impulses via hormones that get us revved up. This “sympathetic” nervous system branch increases heart rate and respiration, getting us ready to fight, or flee, as if a tiger were chasing us. However, the “parasympathetic” system works in the opposite direction. Known as the “rest and digest” mode, when activated, it slows down heart rate and respiration, turning down the “danger signals” of the brain and allowing the body to restore itself. And guess what? We have conscious control over our respiration rate – so when we begin to slow down our breathing, and deepen our inhalation while slowing our exhalations, the body recalibrates itself. Imagine that!!
- MOVE YOUR BODY: you can shake, you can do a silly dance, you can walk for 10 minutes of ANY KIND OF WALKING … just walking … no rules here, JUST MOVE and you will also be able to recalibrate the danger signals that are flooding your body with the fight or flight chemicals.
None of us need more information – what we are in search of is transformation in our lives. Does this require attention and practice? YES. Can we manage this one day at a time? YES. Will there be some hiccups along the way? YES. Might we feel uncomfortable as we begin a new way of thinking, moving, breathing? YES.
Is it worth our focus to nourish our Self in this way? YES.
I encourage you to listen to the podcast with Dr. Wendy Suzuki and consider how you might reacquaint yourself with your blessings of anxiety and worry. The 13th century poet Rumi captures this idea of emotions in our bodies eloquently … I hope this offers you a new perspective on the miracle and the mystery of you and your Self.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.