The old saying that nothing stays the same except death and taxes is about as useless during tax season as it is when faced with a global pandemic. Both situations induce anxiety to varying degrees and both are subject to change given the degrees of governmental involvement in our lives and what we’re dealing with personally, socially and, globally. What is fundamental to both and to our lives in general, is change and the accompanying feeling of anxiety.
Please note, anxiety is, like any emotional word, a label we apply to give structure to a biological experience we otherwise have no direct personal understanding of. We don’t experience our neurophysiology at the level of neurotransmitters and the cellular interaction with our environment, both external to our body and internal with our organs. Instead, we have words.
Use Your Words Wisely
Words are the building blocks for civilization as we know it. They are the means through which we manifest thought beyond the barrier of our internal world. Attempt to imagine a world without them. You literally are incapable of even considering it without a parade of sentences, paragraphs and dissertations. Behind the curtain though is to see that words are arbitrary, without any intrinsic definition or particular meaning. Examples exist throughout history, both in social evolution (like in the Internet slang of LOL) and groups actively engaging with it differently (like with the word gay).
When it comes to words for emotional experiences, we’re describing complex biological and environmental interactive systems through a simple verbal mechanism. This is both amazing and a requirement for communication. Imagine for a moment attempting to have a conversation with someone where you had to detail every neurophysiological change as it occurred. You’d never get anywhere. For that matter, use the term ‘tornado’ and everyone knows what you’re referring to despite very few people being able to describe the meteorological mechanisms for its creation and activity.
Where we get into trouble is when we take words and apply them backward, falsely reducing or removing complexity from our experience. To use the ‘tornado’ example again, it would be extremely unwise to attempt mapping the path of one by simply referring to the term itself or a simplistic definition of ‘spinning air.’ There’s a host of complex systems in play that the term hides to make communication faster.
Similar happens for our emotions. An increased heart-rate and perspiration, with slight skin flushing and pupil dilation could mean you’re frightened of an approaching wild animal or it could mean you’re sexually aroused. For that matter, it could mean both fear and arousal. Now perhaps you see the problem of working words backward to our experience. It would be quite unhealthy to apply arousal to the first experience by limiting yourself to one word and equally (though with different outcomes) problematic if the only thing you allowed yourself to think was fear when approaching sex.
Let’s explore anxiety. It’s an assessment about change, any change, that is occurring in the complex interplay of our external and internal environments. Often this change has an unknown source and/or unknown consequences. Have you ever felt anxious and were confused as to why? That you quickly created a story to explain it doesn’t make the confusion any less real. As well, neither does the story mean the provided explanation is fully accurate. This lack of fully capturing the experience within a word is where the potential for freedom resides. What you have to do is pursue it.
Move Your Body
The mind/body “problem” is about as useful as the nature/nurture “debate.” Both offer a false choice when looking at complex situations and any thought to having one influence the other in a one-way direction is equally unhelpful and inaccurate. We do not have a mind and a body, we are an ‘embodied mind.’ That means what we think is integrally related to bodily systems and, by extension, to the environment our bodies interact with and within.
This perspective is exactly why words cannot be used to contain our experiences fully and why attempting to do so results in unhealthy behavioral habits. Take the sensation of hunger, where the vast majority of the time you’re actually just thirsty, but because we’ve constrained a physical experience to a word with a single definition, we behave towards it by eating when we don’t have to and thus contribute to unhealthy weight gain. Further, any idea of mind OVER body is also removed because they’re not separate. Instead, think of mind INTERPRETING body.
Interpretation means using your imagination to expand your reactions to your words. Just because you feel anxious doesn’t mean you have to react to it in the same way each and every time. In fact, if you reflect a bit on your past, you will quickly realize you already don’t. This is not a new skill to learn. Rather, it’s a skill to use more broadly. This is what is actually happening when people say mind OVER body; it’s not telling your body that the sensations aren’t what they are, it’s training yourself to react to them differently.
When feeling anxious, grabbing the nearest comfort food is not a necessity, any more than when feeling angry doesn’t require punching something or someone. One of the first behaviors to learn when expanding how you respond to your emotional assessments is to take a walk (or similar). Yes, I know, this may sound ridiculous, but it really is that basic, if not that easy. We have trained ourselves through a lifetime of connecting words to actions to believe one necessitates a particular form of the other. Unlearning this is not an easy or quick process, but we need to start somewhere. Here’s a set of directions to get you started:
- Name the feeling
- Think of other situations you may have felt similarly
- List how you responded differently
- Consider your context and select a healthier reaction
- Anxiety during pandemic
- When late for a meeting, paying bills, approaching an anniversary
- Calm breathing, think of what you have instead of what you lack, consider the needs of the other person
- Focus on what you have, rather than what is absent
The selected reaction does not have to be perfect. It can even be repetitive if such is healthier than the alternative. The point here is to expand your reactionary toolbox. Remember the wisdom of “when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”? Well, here is the application. If you only have one way of dealing with an emotional assessment, more and more situations start being dealt with in the same way.
Accept Your Responses
We’re inherently lazy creatures. By that I mean we like simplicity and similarity. It’s why change is so difficult and gets assessed as anxiety, because we like when things are consistent. Honestly, much of our behavior can be seen as attempts to shape the world to conform to our view of it. Frustration happens when the world, or any part of it, doesn’t acquiesce to our demand.
Unfortunately the desire for consistency and simplicity leads us to make and then never challenge the connections between words and experience. Here is where acceptance comes in.
Acceptance is about broadening awareness to then rest in the space between seeing and doing. This is the difference between acceptance and wallowing. The latter is about diving into a particular reaction and dwelling there. Acceptance sees our profoundly human way of assessing our experience through words and slowing down our felt need to respond immediately. This is why mindfulness/meditation training is so helpful, because it is a great tool for building the space between thought and action.
In this time of individual, societal and global anxiety, expanding the space between thought and action is how we move forward in healthier ways. Anxiety is both inevitable and completely natural, there is no shame to be had in feeling it. Thankfully our humanity allows us to feel it and then learn to react in new ways.