Anxiety is Not All In Your Head

Anxiety is a physical experience. It’s often first felt in the body, and by paying attention to the body we can learn to predict, prevent or manage difficult episodes.

That’s the main point of my book, Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. Here’s an excerpt:

Anxiety is not all in your head.  It will not make you crazy.  By itself it will not kill you.  But it can complicate other conditions that can make you very sick.  Anxiety is a physical disorder with physical symptoms.  While it is aggravated by thoughts and perceptions, it needs to be treated as a physical illness as well as a mental illness.  For at its very core, anxiety is a physical experience.

Approaching anxiety as a physical experience should not emphasize the separation of mind and body that has distracted and damaged us for centuries.  It should help us reconcile the two.

Anxiety crushes the heart and confuses the mind.  Interestingly, in biblical Hebrew the word leb meant both heart and mind.  No distinction was made between the two.  To properly handle anxiety today we need to reunite them, to view the heart and mind again as one.  There is no clearer example than anxiety of how when one is sick, so, equally, is the other.

Anxiety may be indicative of a battle waged between the heart and the mind.  It is what happens when one does not pay attention to the other.  If we want to correct our mind, we have to listen to our body.

The mind, especially when anxious, tends to jump all over the place and can be incredibly inconsistent.  Feelings in the body are easier to identify and may tell us more about the state of our health.  In learning to handle anxiety, we should begin there.

I write of handling anxiety as opposed to overcoming it because the first step is to dispel the notion that you’re at war with yourself.  You’re not to fight your way through this.  You have to hold yourself gently and understand that you’re just suffering from a normal function that has gone a little haywire.

Arguing with yourself about the accuracy of your thoughts is unlikely to yield positive results.  It’s not always possible to take a step back and consider where you may be wrong.  In the grip of anxiety you’re probably too self-critical and too negative to be objective about yourself, anyway.

In order to best live in anxious times we’ll have to read our body as we approach each threat.  The predator at the door is extremely real, and extreme reactions to deal with it are expected.  But uncertainty, worry about things that might or might not happen, and fear of the unknown do not call for immediate, highly stressed action.

We should pause.  Experience the sensations in our bodies.  Carefully consider things.  Plan a little.  Anxiety, unfortunately, often makes this impossible.

When our thought patterns are broken we can still find the way to health.  We must search deep within our bodies to discover how we truly feel and what we must do about it.

Anxiety is physical.  Thoughts just make it worse.  We must first work with the body to come to terms with it.  We’ll get to the thoughts later.  For in the words of Richard Rohr, “You cannot think yourself into new ways of living, but you can live yourself into new ways of thinking.”

Sometimes, working with the body is the key to mental health.

Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available wherever books are sold.

Everyone Suffers

I’m very curious, and I’m at my best when I’m unsure of something and trying to understand. I think this is the root of empathy - the need to listen carefully to and discover as fully as you can someone else’s experience. Unfortunately, the hint of grandiosity ever present in bipolar disorder makes me often lose this empathy and think I know better how a person should approach their own experience. Lost on me is the reality that people usually just want to be listened to, not told what to do. Compassion lies in sharing emotions, finding common experience, not in being a know it all. I wrote about this for the International Bipolar Foundation. Please read that here.

Meditation

Anyone who reads me even a little knows I am very critical of the “mindfulness industry” and the positioning of mindfulness as a calming, stress relieving, joyous experience. It certainly can be, but what if life is awful? If mindfulness is, as some teachers insist, fully experiencing the present moment without judgment, how does the adherent approach truly awful experience that demands judgment to correct it? And what if you’re stuck in a rut, alone in the life-cheating, numbing world of a pandemic that devours the opportunity to live and share in a satisfying way? The ancient philosophies that underpin mindfulness address this, but most people who meditate have no interest in these ideas and instructions. They just want to feel better. And that’s ok. I promote healing through fully experiencing movement and meaningful work as well as, or perhaps even instead of, meditation; for meditation is not always the answer and the way it has been sold cheats it of its rich history and how it can truly help us at times like these. The Economist addresses that idea here (registration required):