By Adam J. Pearson
Anxiety is a state of feeling troubled or vexed, which can create feelings of fear, worry, uneasiness, and dread. Anxiety can render life deeply unpleasant and difficult. We need not resign ourselves to it, however, because there are ways of coping with and working through anxiety when it arises. Anxiety can come in many forms. In this article, I will briefly distinguish four types–aversion anxiety, social or judgment anxiety, separation anxiety, and future-oriented anxiety–and some techniques that we can use to address and work through each of these types.
In my experience, anxiety can have several causes. The first of these causes is based on a sense of inner resistance. We can feel anxious about some thought, feeling, memory, or imagining that is arising within the mind and feel an impulse to push it away or resist it. As we feel resistance, we begin to push this particular thing away from us mentally and feel anxious that it will trouble us again. For instance, a man might feel anxiety about his sexual feelings. Each time these feelings come up within him, he can feel uncomfortable and troubled, and thus, can begin to push these feelings away rather than face them head on. Because this first kind of anxiety is based on internal resistance, pushing away, or aversion to something arising within us, I call it aversion anxiety.
Another cause of anxiety is the fear of other people’s judgments. Fearing that others will negatively judge our appearance or personality or will hurt or reject us in some way can produce anxiety when we are around other people. For instance, a woman may feel insecure about her weight and, as a result, feel worried that people will judge her to be fat in the clothes she wears. Or, a man might feel a great sense of worry that he will lose his partner, that she will leave him or judge him not good enough, and as a result, feel a powerful feeling of anxiety about his relationship. A third example of this kind of anxiety arises for people who have trouble being around other people; just going out in public and being around others makes them uncomfortable. Because this kind of anxiety is based on social situations and fear of the judgments of others, I call it judgment anxiety or social anxiety.
A third cause of anxiety is the assumption of separation. One might even say that nearly all anxiety is predicated on the assumption of separation; there is ‘me’ and then there is a separate ‘other’ that will judge me, or hurt me, or take away something I need, or fire me, or fail me, or betray me. Once we make this assumption, we feel anxiety because we have a sense of having no control over the other person and this powerlessness gives rise to worry, fear, and discomfort. Even if we see a person whom we love very much as separate from us, we might feel anxiety when we have to be out of their presence. All of these subtle forms of anxiety can be collectively called separation anxiety.
Beyond these two causes, worry about the future can also give rise to anxiety. We might feel anxious about an exam we will have to right, or about whether we will lose our job in the future, or about how we will make bill or rent payments. We might feel anxious about our future death. Any anxiety caused by fear and worry about the future can be referred to as future-oriented anxiety.
If we feel anxiety, it is helpful to consider what kind of anxiety it is because the antidotes to the various types differ. First of all, we must be careful to mention that anxiety can be light or chronic and is a complex phenomenon with no simple answers. With that said, there are things that we can do to at least temporarily alleviate anxiety.
If the anxiety we feel is aversion anxiety, we can practice a threefold process: (1) acknowledging the feeling, thought, or memory to which we are feeling aversion, (2) fully going into or facing the object of the aversion without pushing it away or turning away from it, and (3) simply being present with it, allowing it to be, without reacting to it. Acknowledging, facing, and allowing the object of aversion to be present can gradually weaken the aversion over time. As the aversion weakens, so will the anxiety that depends on it.
If the anxiety we feel is social anxiety, we can practice being around trustworthy people and actively trusting them. This means being open to giving people the benefit of the doubt. We can also practice building confidence, self-assurance, and a sense of our own abilities and worth. As we feel more secure, we will feel less vulnerable to the negative judgments and hurtful actions that we imagine others may have or enact for us. As confidence grows and fear and worry subside, so will the judgment anxiety. The social aspect of the anxiety really begins to lose its power as we have more experience being around other people and grow more at ease in social situations.
To work through separation anxiety, it helps to specify what its type is. If it is the traditional kind of separation anxiety, which is anxiety over being away from someone we love, then we can practice building confidence and emotional independence. It is good to love another, but the less we can depend on those we love and stand on our own two feet, the less strain we will place on our relationships and the less anxiety we will feel when we must be away from our loved ones. More generalized forms of separation anxiety can be worked through by undermining our belief in the assumption of separateness. Reflecting on the interdependence revealed by the sciences (e.g. how all organisms in an ecosystem are bound together (ecology), how things can be connected despite being divided by large distances (physics) and the nonduality revealed by meditation can be helpful in achieving this end. As our sense of separateness is gradually replaced with a sense of deep connection, this second kind of separation anxiety can also lose its pull and power over us.
Finally, if we feel anxiety about the future, there are several actions we can take. If we plan and prepare ourselves for likely consequences, then we will be more ready and feel more secure about handling them as they arise . So, planning and preparation can be helpful. It may also be useful to bear in mind that there are certain things that are in our power as regards future events and other things that are not. If, for instance, we are afraid of losing our job due to our own incompetence, we can remedy this through more training, care, attention, education, practice, and consultation with managers. If we are afraid of losing our job due to layoffs resulting from the state of the economy, however, this is something that is not in our power; it is possible to be a perfect employee and still be laid off. All we can do in situations like these is do our best and trust that our knowledge and skills and the many possibilities that the world provides will be able to carry us forward should something like a layoff take place.
In addition, we can reduce future-oriented anxiety by cultivating a sense of calm, mindfulness of the present moment. As we practice being aware of how we are breathing in and out and what we are experiencing in the present moment, we can get more grounded in the now and worries about the future can begin to exert less of a ‘gravitational’ pull on us. As we learn to center ourselves more firmly in the now, we can simultaneously learn how to avoid getting sucked into the orbits of worried thoughts about the future. The future is not an object that we can deal with since it is not yet reality; it has not yet come to pass. What we have to deal with is the present, and the present is always within our power to manage.
In short, we need not feel helpless in the face of anxiety. As we learn to recognize the kind of anxiety we are feeling, we can gain insight into its nature. As we gain insight into what kind of anxiety it is, we can learn what steps we can take to work through it. Through this process, anxiety can become become a useful fuel for our growth and development just as rain water supports the growth of the lily and the rose.