Certain powerful sensations and emotions are simply uncomfortable, if not downright painful. For some people, feeling sadness or grief is nearly intolerable; others would rather cry for an hour than feel intense anxiety or fear. Having experienced some form of depression on and off since my teens (and having grown almost used to it), I’ve always fallen in the latter category. I’d rather bear those ills I know, if I have to bear any ills at all.
Interestingly enough, it was in experiencing some new ones that I learned something about the old ones, and stumbled across a more effective way of dealing with both.
A Personal Story
A year and a half ago my money started to run out. It was January, my town was buried in several feet of snow, and I was unemployed and living in a dark one-room apartment. For the first time in my life, an overwhelming anxiety took possession of me — and, truly, it was like possession — along with something like agoraphobia. I remember standing inside the entrance of a Target superstore one day in late winter, enveloped in what I can only describe as existential terror. (Never mind the valid sociological argument that the proper human response to a Target superstore is existential terror. That’s fodder for a another post, another time!) The warehouse-sized building full of endless rows of merchandise seemed foreign, overwhelming, even somehow menacing. I wove uneasily among adjacent departments, avoiding the aisles like a frightened rabbit. I was unprepared and uncomprehending. What was happening to me?
I had never before experienced such protracted and uninterrupted periods of unmitigated fear. Every morning I woke up consumed with dread; all day long my exhausted adrenals pumped fight-or-flight hormones throughout my body. In the ensuing months, I had a bout of pneumonia; my upstairs neighbor (a drummer in a rock band) and his drunken buddies awakened me consistently most nights around four a.m., until I developed insomnia; I started a high-stress job as administrator for an organization that had only two paid full-time staff; and I packed up all my belongings and moved in with an acquaintance to escape my neighbor’s nightly after-parties, which no amount of negotiating and pleading had quieted.
I have never been quite the same since. The cumulative effect of all of this on my nervous system was such that no amount of herbal therapy, yoga, acupuncture, hot baths, or the conventional prescription and nonprescription drugs I tried without success could completely mitigate the aftershock. Even now I sleep lightly, and not infrequently with difficulty. I feel the vibrations of adjacent footfalls and bass lines in my bones. There is a tightness, an almost painful constriction in my chest that I can feel acutely when I become still and empty my busy mind. Oftentimes meditation and relaxation are synonymous with a greater awareness of this discomfort. Depending on its intensity, it can feel like anything from restlessness to outright panic. It increases under certain stressors, like when I’m faced with the necessity of moving again. A task such as packing can literally give me heart palpitations.
Thinking about Feelings
Certain thoughts about controlling these feelings just exacerbate them, too. Well-meaning converts to the Law of Attraction, who caution me that such “negativity” will create more of the same in my life, only help to increase the anxiety by turning up the volume on my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Step on a crack, break my mother’s back. Quick, don’t think a bad thing! Oh my God, I’ve done it now…
Note that I said certain thoughts about controlling these feelings. Ever the rationalist by nature (or more likely by nurture), my first instinct is to try to solve my discomfort by thinking even more about it. Despite years of evidence to the contrary, I seem to believe that ruminating endlessly upon the possible causes of my distress will somehow make it go away. Why am I feeling bad? Let’s dissect this from every possible angle! A good seventy percent of the therapy I underwent for a decade (for depression) involved an endless and often fruitless dissection of my past in an attempt to alleviate the pain in my present. But adding context did not necessarily create relief.
In fact, it frequently seemed that the more I obsessed about my perceived troubles and “issues,” the harder I tried to “fix” these intractable “problems” I had, the bigger and more solid they grew and the more frustrating they became. As if my constantly spinning thoughts were actually spinning them into a gigantic snowball. The story gained momentum with each retelling.
Last summer I picked up The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle for the first time, and at once something clicked. With incredibly lucid, unadorned prose, he describes exactly how we perpetuate our own suffering in our minds, keeping our pain and worry alive with our repetitive thoughts about past and future. We expend a great deal of energy this way creating problems for ourselves, and making ourselves a problem, when what would actually free us is a return to awareness of the present moment (the only moment that truly exists). Although I’d read something like this before in other books — usually by prominent Buddhist teachers — it hadn’t sunk in on more than an intellectual level. And I had certainly never known how to apply it in my day-to-day life.
The key word he used was nonresistance. Which meant neither running away from discomfort nor fighting it. Instead of immediately commencing the usual struggle, he recommended that we allow the feeling, and give it no more attention than nonjudgmental observation. I honestly didn’t know if I could I sit still and just be with an experience, even when the experience was wholly unpleasant, but it was worth a try. Could I refrain from jumping on the thought train and turning everything into a major issue? Could I break a lifelong, ingrained, unconscious habit?
The answer turned out to be yes — when I’m paying attention! I’m a lot more conscious of my unconscious reactions now than I was, so when the intense anxiety possesses me, as it did when I was in the midst of packing for my latest move, I can sometimes catch myself in the act of resistance.
I was in the car with an old and dear friend, on the way to what I had hoped would be a lovely Sunday brunch, when it seized me, violently, like a blindsided hostage. I was seasick with dread; my stomach knotted and my heart raced. The downtown streets looked ugly, squalid, and hostile. At first I tried to fight the feeling, then despaired at the thought that our outing was ruined.
Suddenly I remembered Tolle’s words: resist nothing.
I relaxed into my discomfort. As if it were the most normal thing in the world. Okay, I decided, so I’m going to feel like this right now. I neither battled nor ignored the sensations, but simply allowed them to blow through my system like a minor typhoon, as my friend continued to tell me about her new house. By the time we were parking, they were already ebbing away. When we sat down at a table, it was hard for me to believe how I had felt only minutes before, and we did have a lovely brunch, after all.
Who woulda thought it? Certainly not me. But that’s the beauty of not thinking.
A Beautiful Meditation
A postscript for other anxiety and panic sufferers: in addition to surrender, I have found this breathing meditation, adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh (and borrowing a gesture from Kundalini yoga), very helpful. It can be done while lying down or sitting in your favorite meditation posture. Placing your right hand over your heart, breathe deeply from the belly while silently reciting each line with the appropriate inhalation or exhalation:
Breathing in, I calm my heart.
Breathing out, I smile at my heart.
Suspending each in-breath and out-breath for a few seconds will help slow your pulse.
About the Author
Carolyn writes under the alias of AlienBaby, as she has always been bewildered by what is regarded as “normal” on this wacky planet called Earth, and also likes to pull things apart and play with them. Her blog, What The Hell is This? combines social commentary and timeless wisdom themes with flagrant navel-gazing. A resident of Denver, Colorado, USA, she is not a licensed professional of any kind, but encourages you to try this at home. Her ruminations draw upon authors of philosophy, psychology, spirituality, sociology, ontology, and other fascinating subjects that end in y.
Michael’s House, a California-based drug treatment center, focuses on individual needs. The patients there overcome their physical and psychological addictions in a supportive environment that teaches life skills and accountability. Arlene Rosen founded the center after her son, a race car driver, died from an overdose. The center stresses a comprehensive approach to not only drug rehab, but also personal healing.
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