Anxiety can be crippling. And persistent. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it:
Anxiety is an emotion characterized by an unpleasant state of inner turmoil, often accompanied by nervous behaviour such as pacing back and forth, somatic complaints, and rumination. It is the subjectively unpleasant feelings of dread over anticipated events, such as the feeling of imminent death. Anxiety is not the same as fear, which is a response to a real or perceived immediate threat, whereas anxiety involves the expectation of future threat. Anxiety is a feeling of uneasiness and worry, usually generalized and unfocused as an overreaction to a situation that is only subjectively seen as menacing. It is often accompanied by muscular tension, restlessness, fatigue and problems in concentration. Anxiety can be appropriate, but when experienced regularly the individual may suffer from an anxiety disorder…In positive psychology, anxiety is described as the mental state that results from a difficult challenge for which the subject has insufficient coping skills.
Most of us have had some brush with anxiety, be it with that looming driving test or that terror of public speaking. Jerry Seinfeld quipped, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
When anxiety becomes as commonplace as the face greeting us in the mirror, it seriously diminishes quality of life. We avoid situations where that familiar feeling will amplify to painful levels. It may lead us to cockamamie decisions because the amorphous dread exaggerates the probable dangers. At its most crippling, it may lead to agoraphobia and panic attacks.
Anxiety can be seen as fear of an imagined future. And since we have the virtually infinite capacity to scare the bejeezus out of ourselves, there is no lack of fodder. Even when we lack for specific bêtes noires, there is always the old fall backs, “the Unknown” and “Death.” The story we tell ourselves has a direct effect on our internal state, our emotions, and our neurochemistry. When anxiety disorder is excessive, medication may be prescribed to modify the neurochemical activity in the brain.
Anxiety and Body-Mind-Spirit Integration
For those with a more manageable condition, particularly situation-specific worries (public speaking, job interviews, math tests, etc.), I have a non-pharmaceutical suggestion. It is born of clinical observations over the past 25 years and ties in directly to my other work.
Body-Mind-Spirit integration manifests when we actively engage the preconscious, conscious, and superconscious states of awareness (Eye of Flesh, Eye of Mind, and Eye of Spirit). It is experienced as a state of “Wholeness,” or coherence. I have talked and written often about coherence over the years, including Taijiquan: Through the Western Gate and Finding You in a World of It, and this blog. Coherence is the empirical starting point for most of my research, since it can be physically demonstrated so easily. Any system operating in a state of wholeness takes on qualities that are not present in a non-coherent state.
“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” is not just folk wisdom, it is scientifically demonstrable. For example, coherent light (a laser) is capable of things impossible for non-coherent light. I recently had LASIK surgery, where a laser is used to alter the structure of the cornea of the eye to correct some visual problems. Try that with a flashlight! A well-organized team of football players can perform better than a disorganized bunch of athletes working at cross-purposes.
What does that have to do with anxiety, you ask? My clinical observation over the past couple decades is that humans in a highly coherent energy state do not feel inappropriate fear and anxiety. Even if you start in that state, just by intentionally pointing and reaching with the index finger, something shifts immediately and it’s gone. The mind clears and thoughts that felt like clubs and arrows now recede and lose their power. And if repeated and sustained over time, there is a fundamental shift in the person’s emotional default setting toward more equanimity. People come up to me all the time and say how pointing the index finger has helped them keep it together under a wide variety of stressful circumstances.
By contrast, energetic non-coherence is experienced as fear, anger, anxiety, frustration. The mind is cluttered by thoughts and emotions that are at cross-purposes. This is felt in the body as muscular tension and/or pain. The nervous system shifts into hyper-vigilance because it recognizes something is non-optimum in the system, and it is charged with the task of sorting that out. That process usually centers on rummaging through the mind looking for a good narrative to make the hurting stop.
But further rumination rarely helps. It only adds gasoline to the fire. What helps most is shifting attention OUT of the story-making function of the brain and opening up to heightened coherence.
Sunburn of the Soul
Anxiety is like a sunburn of the soul. When badly sunburned, a touch that might be pleasurable otherwise is felt as pain. Simple actions like putting on a shirt or sharing a hug are approached with caution. (It can put a bit of a damper on sex too!) We develop strategies of how to execute the normal activities of the day so as not to feel the knife-stab of a touch on a tender back.
You can imagine the effect a severe burn over much of the body for a prolonged time would have on your behavior, your emotional state, and your confidence.The world becomes a more dangerous place, where behaviors that were once non-threatening or even pleasurable become unsafe, or at least difficult. We resist, avoid, or push away incoming sensation. We put limits on our participation in life, and as a result, become unhappy.
It may seem ridiculous, but the simplest thing to do is to point and reach with your index finger and actually FEEL the finger. “Simple” does not mean easy, however. Simply “feeling” without mentally describing the process is challenging to those who need it most. It uses a different part of the nervous system than the default setting, but when done mindfully it helps to integrate the pre-conscious and conscious levels of awareness and open one to superconsciousness. (see “Superconscious! Seeing With Three Eyes”) The separation and fragmentation that often accompanies us dissolves and is replaced by a state of wholeness, peace, mental quietude.
The biggest reason why it’s not “easy” is that feeling absent conceptualization is so foreign to many of us. We immediately want to turn the world as experienced into an abstraction. It’s difficult to feel a table, just as it is, without immediately qualifying it with smooth/rough, warm/cool, big/small, etc. That is, converting the “thing itself” into an “object of thought,” and abstraction. All our training and experience is to activate the It-mind and immediately concoct a narrative about the object.
Getting free from anxiety requires shifting out of the story for at least the moment and being present with What-is, not our thoughts about What-is. And Presence is the decision to occupy THIS MOMENT IN SPACE AND TIME. Not a memory of what happened before or an imagined fear of what might happen. It’s NOW. And in NOW the story disappears.
The second biggest barrier to implementing this “simple” exercise is that even if we do it right and actually shift into this highly coherent state, our habit is then turn the memory of THAT into an algorithm, a process the brain executes automatically. We don’t actually FEEL the finger NOW, we remember feeling it in the past. Thus, we are no longer in the present moment, participating in NOW, we are back in the part of the brain that brings us back to the story that is causing the anxiety in the first place.
The serpent eats its tail.
Energetic Coherence 2.0
As a way of hurdling these two difficulties, I have come up with another “simple” exercise to establish energetic coherence. (It’s really just a modification of the one in the video above, but a little beefier.)
Step One: Point your left index finger, take a deep breath, and feelthe finger. (Wiggle it if necessary.) Don’t get into thinking about the finger. Just FEEL it.
Step Two: Exhale and relax the left index finger.
Step Three: Point your right index finger. Take a deep breath. Feel the right index finger.
Step Four: Exhale and relax the right index finger.
Step Five: Repeat Steps 1 and 2.
Step Six: Repeat Steps 3 and 4.
Step Seven: Notice that your mind is clear and there is no fear or anxiety.
What Just Happened?
The right hemisphere of the brain controls the left side of the body. The left hemisphere controls the right. Consciously FEELING activates the afferent nervous system, which begins the process of letting more sensation/information “in.” (When anxious, we tend to push away, avoid, disconnect. When we FEEL, we receive nerve impulses from the extremities which go to the brain for processing.) It also uses parts of the brain that tend to atrophy when underused, like the somatosensory cortex and the insula.
(Note: I am way out of my depth when talking about brain structures, but I do know something is happening there. I do the best I can with my limited knowledge to identify what is going on. It’s a work in progress.)
Mindfully alternating between left and right hemispheres quickly brings the brain into a state of hemispheric synchronization, where information is transferred almost instantly, bypassing the brain’s normal channels.
There is a myth about how little of the brain we actually use (between 10% and 15% by some counts.) While not actually true, many of us have a sense that we aren’t getting the most out this blob of cells. We do know that the old adage of “Use it or lose it!” applies to the brain as well as the biceps.
When we shift out of the familiar territory of the It-mind and go walking the back trails of the underutilized parts of the brain, we create new neural connections and new neurons, thereby rejuvenating the nervous system. This is the neural foundation of what I am calling the pre-conscious mind (awareness that is not yet conscious).
When we mindfully activate the pre-conscious mind in a heightened state of coherence, we open the Eye of Flesh, Eye of Mind, and Eye of Spirit (superconsciousness).
If anxiety is “the mental state that results from a difficult challenge for which the subject has insufficient coping skills,” then being more present, more whole, and more integrated in body and mind might have an immediate effect on one’s “coping skills.” It doesn’t solve all our problems, but it’s a good start.
Long Term Solution
If anxiety is an acute condition for you, arising in response to playing in your first backgammon tournament, for instance, then getting more coherent before playing may get you over the hump and back to normal. However, if your anxiety is more chronic then your brain chemistry will reflect that. Getting your head stably above water may take some time and effort (gongfu). That means using your will and determination to keep after it, grabbing every opportunity to feel your coherence.
Start by pointing and reaching a hundred times a day. It just takes a few seconds each time. (You can do it longer if you like.) And it feels really good. Alternate right and left, pausing to actually FEEL the fingers. You can do it standing, sitting, lying down, driving a car, walking, playing ping pong, going to sleep…use your imagination.
Cultivate a taste for actually feeling good…most of the time.