Afflictive Emotions: Anxiety

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For the purposes of this discussion, anxiety does not refer to any of the mental illnesses such as generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. This more severe anxiety is often the result of some combination of genetics, physiological and psychological factors, as well as environmental context. Anxiety disorders are medical conditions that require treatment from a mental health professional or physician. Mindfulness practices may be quite helpful for people with anxiety disorders, but they are not meant to replace treatment. Please visit my psychology practice website, Ochester Psychological Services, LLC, for more information about and resources for anxiety disorders and other mental health concerns.

The anxiety I refer to here is an afflictive emotion and transient mental state that involves intolerance of ambiguity. We prefer things to be definite, permanent, and solid, because certainty gives us the illusion of control. We think that if we know the “enemy”, we can outwit or defeat it. So, when things seem uncertain, we worry, become beset by fears and plagued by doubt. In our discomfort, we flail about restlessly, grasping for what seems safe or desirable and ignoring, pushing away or attacking that which seems threatening. Many times, we will unquestioningly accept an illusion that makes us feel safe and reject a more ambiguous or uncertain reality.

When  we act from a place of anxiety, we are striving to protect or defend ourselves against something we perceive as dangerous or uncertain such as threats to our self-image, our future, or to people, things or ideas we hold dear. There may be an intention to do harm, but our defensive actions feel justified and necessary – and it is this sense of “I”, “me”, and “mine” that allows us to feel threatened in the first place.

Fear can be a useful emotion. If someone is about to be hit by a bus, the biological changes resulting from your interpretation of events may allow you to react quickly and prevent grave injury or death. There are many, many more times in life; however, when a reflexive response to fear is unhelpful. This is because, the way we think about things and the messages we send ourselves shape our emotions, which in turn direct our actions. The human brain and senses are quite fallible and prone to error, so often our interpretations distort reality. Even so, all emotions can be useful if we are able to recognize and open to them, slowing down and making space to examine experience with curiosity.

We can relate more effectively to fear and uncertainty by cultivating courage. Acting with courage requires trust in our innate potential, a willingness to face and accept challenges and uncertainties, and an intention of acting with benevolence even under the most difficult and ambiguous of circumstances. Courage allows us to be open and curious so we can gain wisdom and face adversity with kindness and compassion, rather than acting out in a harmful way.

In support of these good intentions, practicing single-pointed concentration calms and tames the mind. This makes space for gaining insight and developing wisdom. The clarity that we cultivate through practice over time clears away misperception, cutting through the very roots of fear, anxiety and doubt, opening the way for skillful responding.

Those who struggle frequently with anxiety can learn helpful mindfulness practices and build a foundation to support them by taking an 8-week mindfulness course. Through my psychology practice, I lead a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy course every spring and fall. This program uses a combination of mindfulness practices and CBT to help people relate differently to their emotions. I also co-lead a Mindful Self Compassion course that helps people learn to befriend themselves and treat themselves with kindness so they can respond more effectively to difficulty.

Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.
― Chögyam Trungpa

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