Spirituality and Anxiety
Anxious? Approaching the problem with self-compassion and mindfulness may help.
This article is intended for information purposes only and is not intended as a guide for any reader’s specific mental health situation. If you are struggling with mental or emotional symptoms, see your physician for a physical checkup and consult a mental health professional.
Have you ever had a smoke detector that kept going off, maybe because it was too close to all that intentionally or unintentionally blackened food you whip up in your kitchen? Or maybe it kept chirping because its battery was low. We rely on smoke detectors to warn us when there is a serious problem. We can put up with a few false alarms, but no one wants to live in a house with a smoke detector going off every few minutes. Yet, that’s what it’s like to live with persistent anxiety.
Our brains have a “smoke detector” called the amygdala. Its job is to keep a constant lookout for danger. It’s been shaped by millions of years of evolution. Our ancestors were the ones that survived long enough to propagate, thanks in no small part to their vigilant amygdalas. We are, it turns out, genetically predisposed to be chronic worriers!
Our amygdalas, however, can become trigger-happy and signal danger too often for us to be at peace in our own skin. Tragic world news, a nagging health concern, tension with a loved one, fears about children, daily traffic, an overstuffed to-do list, and old wound reopened by a difficult interaction—all of these and more can loop through our brains and trigger our alarm systems many times per day. How can we live in an anxiety-provoking world with a brain evolved to be vigilant for danger and live anywhere close to inner peace?
First, it’s important to realize that trying to solve the problem of anxiety so that you’re almost always at peace is a recipe for more anxiety. Anxiety is not a solvable problem. We don’t expect to eat a meal and solve our hunger pangs once and for all. Why, then, should we expect some sort of medicinal or spiritual breakthrough that puts us beyond the reach of anxiety forever? Not even Buddha or Jesus claimed that they were so spiritually advanced that they were able to banish anxiety from their experience. A spiritual approach to anxiety starts with accepting that it is part of being human.
A few miles from where I live a major bridge over a wide river is being replaced. The new bridge is beginning to take form alongside the old one. When the new bridge is complete, traffic from the old one will be diverted onto the new structure and then the old bridge will be closed permanently. This is a good visual for dealing with the anxiety of being human. The old bridge represents our familiar, overused anxiety response system. We can’t just tear that system down because we don’t like it. Instead, we can begin building a new system alongside it. This new system flows with nonjudging acceptance of life as it is and a commitment to choose our best responses to what triggers us, not our fastest ones.
The bridge metaphor needs to be tweaked a bit, however, because with anxiety we never really finish building the new bridge and we never really permanently close down the old bridge. Instead, we live with two, side-by-side systems: a tendency to trigger into anxiety and a way of being nonjudging and accepting of the present even when anxiety is here. Even though we can’t eliminate the old bridge, we can have a good deal of influence over which bridge is used most heavily.
When anxiety shows up, a stream of anxious thoughts and emotions begins to flow over the single, well-worn lane of the old bridge. What good is the new bridge to us when this happens? Instead of trying to stop the flow over the old bridge, we can activate a different flow over the new one. In fact, because we constructed the new bridge with two lanes, we can activate two different flows over it: top-down and bottom-up. The top-down flow is the intentional re-framing of anxiety-provoking thoughts. Instead of thinking, “Oh no, I just can’t take this today!” we can think, “This feels like too much, and I’m aware I feel like I can’t take it, but I accept the moment as it is.” This is called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). As soon as we accept anxiety and surround it with nonjudgment, there is traffic flowing over both bridges. The original anxiety is still present, but now we also have a flow of awareness, acceptance, and nonjudgment.
When we’re anxious, we can also begin a bottom-up flow over the new bridge. This activates something deeper than our top-down thoughts. When we begin to breathe slowly, especially if we have regularly practiced pairing breathing with a state of mindful acceptance, the body begins to move toward what researchers at the HeartMath Institute call “psychophysiological synchronicity.” This fancy term just means that as we surround anxiety with acceptance and nonjudgment, the body begins to realign its basic rhythms (such as heart rate variability and blood pressure) in a way that leads to a bodily state that we experience as more calm and centered.
Stanford neurosurgeon James Doty, M.D. has explained how mindfulness practice works to help us live closer to peace. “The brain is basically a lazy organ,” he says. “It likes to keep doing what is most familiar to it. So if we want it to do something new, we need to make that new thing very familiar to it.” Doty’s words make it clear why we cannot just read about mindfulness or attend an occasional mindfulness retreat if we want it to affect our daily life. The dose of our mindfulness practice matters. The more familiar our brains and bodies are with pairing the breath with calming, accepting thoughts, the more likely the new bridge will carry the majority of the traffic when anxiety shows up. If mindfulness practice were a medicine, the dosing instructions would say: Take as often as possible—the best dose is always more than you think you need!
But who has the time to practice mindfulness all day? Here’s the trick: Begin to look at everything as practice. Every red light, every stressed thought, every inner “should,” every irritating behavior of other human beings—everything is practice. A period of formal mindfulness practice each day helps you make your brain more and more familiar with the connection between your breath and accepting, nonjudging thoughts. Formal practice is a great foundation for the new bridge. Looking at everything else in the day as informal practice puts pillars up to support the span from waking to bedtime.
There’s one thought that may seem to have the power to topple the new bridge. It’s not what we think we’re afraid of that is the most anxiety-provoking, Susan Jeffers says in Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway. It’s the thought If what I’m afraid of happens, I could never handle it that scares us the most. I could never handle it is the deepest fear of the small, fear-based self. That fear is like a huge truck that keeps testing how strong our new bridge is. But we each have the capacity to live from what I call the large self, the version of us that is always aligned with the highest possible energies (or, if you prefer, God). Each time we change I could never handle it to “My large self will accept life as it arises and respond from the highest possible energies” we reinforce and strengthen the new bridge.
Want more? Read the rest of this six-part series, starting with Spirituality, Mental Health, and Therapy: The Mind-Body-Spirit Connection.