To the Worrier Be

One of the shame inducing components of living with anxiety is that you’re likely to assume that others aren’t afflicted or aren’t impacted. That others somehow don’t feel anxious at all and wouldn’t understand what it’s like to live with an anxiety mindset.

I’ve spent many (many) years acknowledging and accepting that anxiety is my constant companion who will sometimes stay quiet in the passenger seat and watch the landscape pass or sometimes shout (or worse whisper) judgmental/negative comments into my ear or, in particular scenarios, will sometimes pull me aside and take over the driving duties.

The years have taught me how to identify the overt manifestations of my anxiety (not that I’m always expert at managing those manifestations), but I’m not nearly as skilled at acknowledging the more subtle signs of build up.

Over the past two weeks, however, I have discovered (I think that is the right word) that when I’m not paying attention, anxiety expressed by others will ignite anxious thoughts and responses within me. Perhaps that’s not so much a discovery as an obvious statement, so to clarify: I’ve recognized on several occasions now when I’m being set off by someone else’s anxious reactions.

At first I reacted with righteousness—I’m not the one generating the anxiety!—but after some reflection (and some actual mindfulness instruction), I now realize that I need to reframe this ‘discovery’ and douse it with empathy.

All of us have and express anxiety—it’s an emotion, right?—but there are many of us who don’t know how to process it so that we don’t pass it around. (In case you’re struggling to find a scenario to test how you react to palpable anxiety, I encourage you to pay attention the next time you’re boarding a plan and the herd crowds the gate...)

Now is the time for me, at least, to pay better attention to—and to help as best I can—those around me who are struggling with their own anxiety companion. Help them without shame and without judgment. That is, after all, what I need from them.

Head In Space

I meditate. It’s odd to admit this publicly, a mix of vulnerability and confession follows. Perhaps because admitting to a meditation practice raises the question about why.

Surely there must be something wrong with me if I’m practicing meditation. A deficiency I’m making up for.

And, well, I suppose there is. Among my faults, I’m quick to anger and I live with a pervasive anxiety and at this mid-point of my life, meditation is a means for keeping myself centered. My life is enhanced, and the lives of those around me are improved, if I work on these more off-the-cuff reactions and maybe not always emote and respond from them without the intervention of conscious thought. 

For the past two months, I’ve been using the Headspace app.

Until I started with the app, I had worked through a regular meditation practice cobbled together mostly from my reading on the topic (Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron). This worked well enough; I had managed a workable daily practice, even if it is at times difficult to focus during my sessions.

What I’ve appreciated most about Headspace is the guided sessions, an aspect I was initially not keen on but have come to value. The gentle reminders to reign in my thoughts and to increase that gap between me and the thoughts themselves is essential work for me.

You can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Headspace, which I recommend. Following the initial 30-day trial, should you decide to continue, you can select several learning tracks, including Sports, Health, Relationships, and Performance. (I have been working my way through the Anxiety track in the Health section and found the sessions both effective and easy to practice in my life beyond the meditation pillow.)

Whether you’re drawn to meditation based on its more spiritual overtones or because of the scientific research that supports a practice (or both), Headspace provides you with one more useful tool to help you better understand yourself.

The Bait and the Hook

For several years now, I’ve been working on incorporating a mindfulness practice into my daily (hourly) life.

I began the practice to deal with anxiety; as any sufferer of anxiety will tell you, being in the present is the antithesis of fear and panic, which depend on a tacky combination of circuitous inner dialogue, self-denigrating thoughts and a repetitive regurgitation of previously-felt emotion.

There’s usually a bevy of compulsive behaviors that come bundled in there, behaviors that are meant to drive off the fear and panic.

One of my challenges is that the primary way of coping with anxiety—using deep breathing and other grounded senses to bring me back into the present moment—runs counter to the work necessary for being a writer.

For me, writing requires a deep dive into memory and imagination that often means plunging into that very quagmire of inner dialogue, destructive thoughts and stale emotion that typically trigger anxiety, panic attacks, etc.

Fun.

I discovered Pema Chodron’s work near the beginning of my mindfulness practice, and I’ve found tracking on the Tibetan concept of shenpa to be useful for navigating these seemingly contradictory states of being. Here’s an excellent break-down by Chodron herself.

I’ve written many times in this blog about how very much I suck at noticing that I’m hooked. That doesn’t negate the fact that my goal is to pay better attention, to feel those triggers and those urges and not bite. 

I will fail, of course. And that's why I must begin again.

 

Resolute

Acknowledging the new year and the natural inclination to reassess and renew that the turning of a calendar page brings, the time has come for me to make some resolutions for 2017.

Here are a few:

Blog Harder. (‘Blog Harder’ really should be the name of a 'My Dinner with Andre' style movie) Too often I wait until ideas develop more fully before committing a blog to this website; I would like to remember that some of my favorite bloggers write short and succinct entries. And while ‘short’ and ‘succinct’ aren’t typically my thing, attempting to be so will—I hope—help my blogging output.

Be Mindful Better. ‘Mindfulness’ has become one of those buzzwords and social movements that has me naturally shying away from it, because I’m such a goddamned rebel. Still. Practicing meditation and mindfulness these past couple years has benefited me much. A re-dedication to the practice seems in order – more mindful mindfulness?.

Create More. I have been writing. Really. It’s been slow going. (Novel writing is naturally slow, or at least methinks that it should be, and when you couple a naturally glacial process with an impaired writing schedule well….) So yes, there is a novel in the works. Let’s just throw out that I’d like to have a completed draft by mid-2017. It’s always nice to have deadlines to miss.

Fight. I’m deeply dissatisfied with the politics of our nation. From the national level to my local Portland, Oregon. I don’t care who you voted for in 2016, the lingering result is that we have a broken system that is failing all of us, a system that is unfortunately susceptible to foreign influence and extremist factions. I can’t believe that we’re so far apart from one another. That said, some things—oh like Nazism, racism, sexism—are wrong, and we live in an age when they should not be tolerated. At all. So...we fight.

How about you? What resolutions are you considering?

Change That Mind

People don’t change.

I’ve written that and said that and part of me believes that. Most days, I’m convinced that we all have pre-established modes of being and cemented behaviors that have gradations, perhaps, but states that are largely unalterable.

The term ‘fixed mindset,’ as identified by Psychology and motivation researcher Carol Dweck, betrays an effortless set-point of the kind I’m (mostly) convinced we’re all slaves to, a staid default where the mind’s ability to manage its approach to the world’s many challenges settles into an immoveable monolith reinforced by those cross-sections of ego-rebar.

By contrast possessing a ‘growth mindset’ where we instead maintain a flexible mental position, where we work toward our life goals, where we assess and address issues, problems, situations as they reveal themselves to us in the present, requires that we maintain and sustain a vulnerable, open, and flexible belief in ourselves. Just because we don’t innately exhibit certain skills, doesn’t mean we can’t learn those skills through diligent practice.

According to Dweck’s website, maintaining a ‘growth mindset’ translates into focusing on the effort we put into an endeavor rather than the label we assign to ourselves.

Being vulnerable and open requires that we unmoor ourselves from the words and behaviors that typically defines us as the people we believe ourselves to be. Uncertainty is uncomfortable, sometimes despairingly so, where everything feels transient, slippery, illusory. The Buddhists would say that this is acknowledging Reality. The Reality that the supposed solidity of our existence is nothing but constant flux. But if we can’t rely on the labels and the beliefs we—as well as the people around us—have of us, how are we supposed to recognize ourselves?

About sixth months ago, I made the difficult decision to leave a company for which I’d worked for twelve years. It wasn’t that I didn't want to leave; I ached for change. The respect and appreciation for how I fulfilled my role within the business had evaporated, the relationship with my managers had stagnated for reasons that still feel nebulous and haphazard, and in practical terms they weren’t taking care of me financially, which was having disastrous effects on my family’s finances. I had to act.

Even so, the decision to openly embrace uncertainty, to actively unattach myself from everything I knew or conceived of myself was difficult and frightening.

We often don’t appreciate how important our day-jobs are. These roles provide us with stability, a sense of purpose, maybe even meaning. They also often provide us with drama, interpersonal connection and the subsequent conflict. Our occupations are as integral to our comfort as they are to imprisoning us into believing that life is full of 8-5, Monday through Friday constancy.

We can so easily believe that we are our jobs.

In my former work situation, we were all as hemmed in by labels and expectations as by Reality. Although I put considerable effort into learning new skills, into taking on more than I’d ever done before, my managers were so used to seeing me a certain way, so used to me fitting into the confining role I’d had for years, they didn’t recognize or acknowledge what I’d done. They couldn’t. I, however, knew I was capable of more; I’d proven it to myself, and this gave me the confidence to look for work elsewhere. I had to quit in order to redefine myself, and I was and am fortunate that an opportunity presented itself when it did.

The most startling aspect of it all was how easy it was to let twelve years of ego-investment and self-definition fall away. Once I stopped putting my energy into the same old labels and roles and circular thinking that I was used to (and, let’s face it, addicted to) those labels and roles could no longer contain me.

I suppose, then, that my experience betrays what I actually believe about our potential to learn new skills or to behave differently.