General Anxiety Disorder is a very common condition that affects many of us at some time in our lives. At any one time it is estimated that over 10 million people in the US suffer from some form of GAD. Many are actively seeking treatment through medication or some form of psychotherapy, either online or in-person.
What can I do to help manage my Anxiety?
Through my work with clients both in the office and online through Skype, I find Mindfulness-based therapy to be the most direct and effective approach for helping people change the underlying patterns of emotional and cognitive reactivity that sustain the emotional suffering of anxiety and depression. I describe some of the highlights of this approach that you can apply by yourself to work with your anxiety and emotional pain. The main theme in Mindfulness Therapy is, as I describe in my book, The Path of Mindfulness Meditation, learning to recognize your patterns of habitual negative thinking, beliefs and emotions and then responding to the inner suffering with mindful-awareness, choosing to care for your inner pain with full and immediate presence. This is mindfulness: not resisting or avoiding your pain, not thinking about your pain or trying to analyze it, and not becoming overwhelmed by it, but instead learning to form a relationship with it based on acceptance, friendliness and genuine caring, or love.
1. Reframe the emotion
When an emotion arises, whether anxiety or fear, anger, frustration or feeling overwhelmed, our habitual reaction is to become identified with our thoughts and emotions. We literally become the emotion when we say, "I am angry," "I am sad," "I am afraid." This problem of identification causes our identity, the "I", to collapse into the contracted state of the emotion, thought, traumatic memory or other mental objects that arise. This leads to suffering and this process of identification simply feeds and strengthens the emotional reaction.
We can stop the process by simply reframing the experience from, "I am…" to "I notice the feeling of ...within me." In a very real sense, we keep the "I" separate from the contents of mind and prevent it from contracting into the emotion. Now the emotion or memory or thought simply becomes and object within the mind that I can observe through careful attention (mindfulness). This has a powerful effect in creating a space around the emotion that is essential for allowing the emotion to change and resolve itself. It also keeps you in touch with the "real" you, which is not the contents of your mind, but the consciousness that contains them. You are not your thoughts.
2. Welcome the Emotion
This is a strange thing to ask! Get rid of it, avoid it, resist it yes…but welcome it? It has been shown over and over again that resistance and confrontation are ineffective tools for healing inner emotional suffering. Acceptance and non-violence are far more likely to help. Why? Because it is only by looking that we can ever hope to learn and see what needs to change and reactivity always inhibits this process.
What we are actually practicing is compassion: Compassion with those parts of our mind that are suffering and in pain. Compassion is what these emotions need more than anything, and more than our ineffective attempts to control them or "fix" them. A common saying in Buddhist psychology is that the greatest gift we can give to another person is our kindness and friendship. We understand this well enough in our relationship with people, yet do we extend the same friendship to our emotional suffering? No. Instead we do everything we can to get rid of it or push it away. Can you imagine the chaos that would create if we did this with our unruly children? Emotional suffering is very much like an inner child that is in pain. Our inner child needs our attention and kindness in the same way that a real child needs our love when in pain.
We must learn to smile at our emotional suffering, not fight it and create more suffering. It is difficult, but so is fighting the pain. One of these options has a chance of producing healing.
3. Sit with the Emotion
Just as with guests as they arrive at the door, it is not sufficient to just welcome them and then ignore them, preferring to engage in some other more pleasant activity. After a handshake, we invite them to sit down and then we sit down with them and give them our full attention. In Mindfulness Practice and Meditation we practice "sitting with the emotion" in the same way, giving full attention to the feelings behind the emotion. We cultivate a relationship with our inner emotions in which we listen with an open mind and with curiosity and interest. But of course, we watch very closely at the tendency of the emotion to suck us in. Becoming the emotion, becoming reactive and identifying with the emotion is not helpful. Imagine being with a friend in need. He or she needs you to be present for them and here their pain, not to become equally upset and reactive. To help, there must be space and stillness so that we can see the more subtle structure of our emotions and only then can we begin to see how we can help resolve the situation. This is an exercise in patience and stillness, but you will be surprised at the powerful effect that this can have. The power of listening is greatly undervalued in contemporary society, yet how can anything change if we do not listen in this way, with mindfulness?
4. Ask the Emotion, "How can I help you?"
Along with mindfulness, we bring a quality of friendliness and genuine caring to whatever is in pain. This is called compassion or metta in Buddhist psychology. When we couple the desire to help with the open listening of mindfulness then the emotion will begin to express its needs. What the hurt may need is nothing more than to know that someone cares - that you care and that you are willing to stay present with your inner pain and not abandon it. Most of our suffering persists because we have avoided giving the care and attention and genuine friendliness to our inner pain. During Mindfulness Therapy we choose to do something very different: we choose to turn towards our pain and sit with it in the same way that we would sit with a friend in need, with genuine love and willingness to make friends with our pain. Anxiety, fear, trauma, anger; they all respond to compassion, to genuine care and love and they will heal in direct proportion to the metta that you bring to them. This is one of the great discoveries of the Buddha and it is just as relevant today as it was 2500 years ago.
5. Re-visit your Emotions often
As with people, one visit is not enough to establish a friendship and a working relationship. You must choose to come back to the emotion many times - not to become overwhelmed or identified, not to become lost in thinking about the emotion and worrying, but to come back to the emotion and sit with it yet again - as a friend. Each time you touch the emotion with mindfulness and compassion it will soften and become malleable and begin to change. You are creating the ideal conditions in which suffering can heal, and it will heal by itself if allowed to change, just as ignorance, reactivity and aversion will prevent it from changing.
If you would like to learn more about Online Mindfulness Therapy, please visit my website for The Boulder Center for Mindfulness Therapy. I would also like to hear from you and your experiences with the application of mindfulness for working with anxiety, depression or stress in your life.