By Sharon Salzburg
Reprinted with permission from the app Ten Percent Happier.
Note: Sharon Salzburg, a pioneer in American mindfulness education, is a regular contributor to Ten Percent Happier and the author of nine books. I’ve quoted her previously in my discussion of lovingkindness in this post.
Everywhere I teach, people describe being exhausted by the mounting anxieties of contemporary life, from political uncertainty to climate change and now, the rapid spread of the Coronavirus. Now more than ever, we need to remain calm and composed amid so much danger, real and perceived. But how do we do that?
Here are two steps that I recommend.
1. Distinguishing Anxiety from Fear
The first step in coping is to learn to distinguish anxiety from realistic fear.
Fear is immediate: a threat right in front of you that requires a swift response. My dear friend Sylvia Boorstein uses the example of finding yourself driving through a blinding snowstorm that prevents you from seeing even a few feet ahead. Without needing to think, all your senses focus so that you can respond in a way that ensures your survival and that of the other people in the car. This is a useful response to a dangerous situation.
On the other hand, Sylvia uses the example of trying to reach her son, and not being able to do so. “There could be a thousand reasons he is not answering the phone,” she told me once. “He’s in the shower. He fell in love. He’s sleeping. But my mind goes to the worst extrapolation of that. If I phone my son and he doesn’t answer, that means he must be dead.”
And so her eyes widen and her heart races, as she escalates into a state of hyper-alertness — even though all of this is only taking place in her imagination.
Even worse, anxiety feeds on itself. Sylvia describes it as a “free-floating hyperactivity of the mind.” I would add that anxiety doesn’t just float; it intensifies, building one conjecture upon the next. It can be very harsh. You might even feel anxious about having anxiety, and it gets stronger. A friend sent me an old Peanuts cartoon of Charlie Brown sitting up in bed in the middle of the night saying, “My anxieties have anxieties.” That captures the proliferation of anxieties perfectly.
Now, of course, sustaining ourselves requires vigilance, and the fear response accelerates you — heightens awareness, focuses the senses and alerts the reflexes.
But when those senses are piqued by imaginary threats, we become consumed by anxiety. The fact that anxiety grips the body in the same way as fear gives anxiety more credibility than it deserves. When your body reacts this way, it believes anxiety is alerting you to a genuine threat.
And when the brain is spinning out one horrifying outcome after another, it does not have enough space to clearly perceive the world around us as it is, and make careful, appropriate choices to protect ourselves and others.
So, first step: start by taking a breath or two to ground yourself so that you can determine if the threat you feel is real or a conjecture from circumstances. Is this a real threat? Or is my mind making it up, or perhaps exaggerating what’s actually there? Don’t try to forcefully calm yourself down — that’s too much. Just try to determine if this is a real fear, or an anxious conjecture.
2. Applying an Antidote
Next, once you know that what you feel is anxiety, consider an antidote.
One of my favorites is to cultivate some lovingkindness for yourself: both the chant-like nature of that practice, and the generation of lovingkindness will help. There are guided lovingkindness meditations on the Ten Percent Happier app, and on the internet. They’re very simple – often just chanting to yourself “May I be free from harm. May I be strong and healthy. May I be happy. May I live a life filled with ease.” And then extending those same wishes to the people you love and to the wider world.
When you say those wishes sincerely, every element of the practice is a relief. The phrases channel the energy instead of allowing it to proliferate. As you do this, you are back in charge and you can feel the body relaxing as the space around your anxiety opens up and releases. When you release control, you are free to choose how to react rather than being inhibited by frightening conjectures.
Another effective tool is to simply change your physical surroundings. Get out of the house, if there are things triggering your anxieties there. Go for a walk. The tools are simple – the key is knowing when to reach for them.
Let me conclude with another story from Sylvia Boorstein. Recently, Sylvia was walking through Costco and found herself in an aisle surrounded by big-screen televisions all of which were displaying news about politics.
Instantly her pulse started to race, and all her fears for the future ricocheted inside her mind, so much so that she had to stop shopping and pause.
First, Sylvia took a breath and then another to bring herself out of her mind and back to her body — in the here and now. Then, she could see that she was in a big public place, and she was safe. There was no immediate threat.
From that, she expanded her thoughts to her reliable car in the parking lot, her home where she has lived comfortably for decades. Rooting herself in the present — and in her larger context — shrunk the anxiety and thereby weakened it, allowing her to go about her errand.
Sylvia’s story illustrates the two elements of coping with anxiety. The first is recognizing it. Is the threat in the moment, or is it in the mind? Once you name it, it’s easier to address it. You, like Sylvia, can reach for a number of tools.
Now, nothing in life is a straight shot. Sylvia is in her 80s now, and she still works with anxiety all the time. We go forward, we fall down, we have to pick ourselves up or let someone help us up — we go forward again. That’s how change happens, that’s how progress is made — through resilient effort, not through self-punishment or judgment.
But change is possible. You can live a life that keeps anxiety in perspective.
Did you find Sharon Salzburg’s guidance helpful? Can you relate it to your own life?