Dealing With Anxiety? Here Are 4 Simple Steps To Clear Your Mind
Growing up, we learn math and reading, history and geography, but nobody teaches us about the logic of the mind and how to navigate the internal geography of our mental landscape. A significant aspect of anxiety arises when we don't understand how to work with the normal and necessary thoughts that dart and dash through the mind every minute of every day. The most painful and alarming of these thoughts, the ones that can cascade into anxiety and panic and cause untold mental suffering, are what we call intrusive thoughts.
Most mainstream methods of addressing anxiety and intrusive thoughts lead to anxiety's game of whack-a-mole: If you whack down one mole (symptom) without addressing it from the root, another mole (symptom) will quickly appear in its place. And then you'll find yourself tumbling down into the anxiety rabbit hole, hellbent on finding the definitive answer to your next soul-shaking question. It's not that you need to give attention to the thought itself and try to resolve the question. In fact, you can't resolve the question because these are fundamentally unanswerable questions. There's not a blood test you can take to determine whether you love your partner "enough," or if you're living in the "right" city. Either you dip down into the place of self-trust and self-knowledge so that you can answer these questions to a satisfactory degree, or you start to cultivate a relationship with uncertainty. And that's when you find the gift that lives in the center of intrusive thoughts.
Living with uncertainty. We simply don't like it. We want definitive answers. We want definable goals. We are intrinsically wired to gravitate toward a need for control and a subsequent attempt to create the illusion of control.
The fear-based self believes that if you could answer the intrusive thoughts of the day, you would hedge your bets and know, without any doubt, that you're OK. Because the fear-based self is terrified of risk, terrified of anything that touches into vulnerability, it creates elaborate and convincing reasons why you need to change your life or seek certainty in some way. This creates an illusion of control, and as uncomfortable as it is to live in the head space of anxiety or uncertainty, it's often a preferable state to the ambiguous, vulnerable place of living in your heart. If you want to learn about what it means to be loving to yourself and others, you have to be willing to let go of control.
This obviously doesn't happen in one Hollywood-breakthrough moment of therapeutic enlightenment. Making the choice to learn rather than remain tightly wound in the safe fortress of control is a daily, sometimes hourly, choice. It's a choice that flies in the face of every illusion of safety that you've spent a lifetime constructing. It's as terrifying as standing on the cliff of eternity and leaping into the abyss. Let yourself feel that terror. Let yourself begin to befriend the mystery of life instead of clinging to what you think you can control. The truth is that there is so little we can control. We make plans because we want to know what will happen in the next hour, but the unknowable and mysterious force of life could subvert your plans in an instant. The only freedom is to make friends with not knowing. When you become more comfortable with the places of not knowing and explore the gifts encased inside the thoughts, the intrusive thoughts will slowly fade away.
Following these four basic steps will help you begin to break free from their hold:
1. Name the thought.
For many people, just naming and normalizing what's happening inside their minds—knowing that the thoughts are not indications that there's something wrong with them but are actually coming in the service of health and healing—is half the battle toward recovery. When you name the thought, you're already defusing it since naming it requires that you're witnessing it. This one small action is how you begin to widen the gap between stimulus and response.
2. Expose the lie.
If you believe the thought is true, you will go down the rabbit hole of anxiety and depression. If you can say, "This is my familiar intrusive thought, and even if I think it's true, I know it's not true," you will take an essential step toward defusing your attachment to it.
3. Sit with the underlying feeling.
Once you remove the addiction by naming the thought and exposing it as a lie, you will be left with what the thought is covering up: a sense of inadequacy, insecurity, vulnerability, sadness, groundlessness of the human experience. Breathe into those feelings and remind yourself that being human—with all of its vulnerability—isn't something that you can get over. It can't be fixed. The best we can do is be with ourselves with love and compassion. And in the loving, we find freedom.
4. Ask the cut-through question for intrusive thoughts.
"What is this thought protecting me from feeling?" Then be willing to sit in silence until your breath leads you to what is needed, which isn't always an answer as much as a direction, a signpost, a crack of spaciousness in the chokehold of anxiety.