ב”ה الحمد لله
A reader asked me to write about anxiety.
After I recovered from the shock (there’s someone reading my blog?!), I started thinking about how to respond to such a request and I got to feeling, well, a little anxious. What do I know about anxiety?
Thank G*d, not so much.
But the more I thought about, the more I realized that the topic is more nuanced than it first appears. Anxiety is a visitor with many faces.
There is what I might call “serious” anxiety, which is a diagnosable condition for which psychiatrists write prescriptions; people who suffer terrible difficulty with waves of overwhelming fear or anxiety. I am thankful to have little experience with this, and my heart goes out to those who face this challenge.
At the other end of the spectrum is the more everyday anxiety that I might refer to as stress, or concern for the future. Doubt, uncertainty, worry about outcomes. What will the future bring? This I have more experience with. And here’s how I approach it when it arises.
First, I recognize it. “Hi, Anxiety.” I notice it, I name it. For me, that’s an important first step; noticing what is arising.
Then I look at it more closely to see what kind of anxiety it is. For example, there is the anxiety about uncontrollable outcomes. Taking an airplane (will it arrive safely?); having surgery (will it be successful?); planning an outdoor wedding (will the sun shine?). These are events whose outcomes we have little or no control over.
For these I have various mantras, depending on my mood. There’s “que sera sera” (whatever will be will be), which I may even start singing out loud. There’s “everything G*d does is for the best” (which of course only works if you have that kind of theistic outlook). And there’s “what’s the worst that can happen?”, wherein I actually let myself imagine the worst case so that I can let it go, realizing that if it happens, that’s just what’s going to happen.
And these mental exercises generally have the effect of calming me down. And sometimes I do physical exercises, too, which can also be helpful.
I think the hardest kinds of anxiety are where we feel that we have some control over the situation. A job interview, a first date, or a difficult conversation with someone. With these cases it’s easy to worry about “what if I freeze up?” or “what if I say something stupid?” or “what if they just don’t like me?”.
And for these, I find it interesting to do a two-step dance. First step is to prepare as best I can ahead of time (perhaps including some meditation time before the event), and the second step is, right before the event, to realize that it actually falls into the first category of uncontrollable outcomes! Because once I’m actually in the situation, there’s not a whole of extra things I really can do, except the best I can.
And I also remind myself that everyone, in the end, is just “people” like me, and what feels like a huge occasion worthy of worry is really, in most cases, just another event in my life, in a long stream of events, and not as critical as my mind may be making it out to be. And so I try and focus on just being as present in the moment as possible, and let the Master Plan unfold however it does.
Sometimes more easily said than done.
And so, when it’s over, it’s a relief to be able to say, “Bye, Anxiety.”