I’d like to start by saying that I’ve personally struggled with anxiety. My story is similar to a lot of people’s in my situation – my parents expected a lot of me and rarely praised my efforts, I experienced rejection in a number of ways and from a number of people, and I’ve been forced to confront a number of very stressful events over the years. Essentially, life has hit me a bit harder than it has others and as a result, I’ve unfortunately developed some unhealthy tendencies.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become my own harshest critic, constantly beating myself up with the “should’ves” and “could’ves,” undermining my confidence, and entering this cycle where I fear something, I avoid it, and the longer I do, the bigger, and more threatening that thing seems, and the more I struggle to evade it. In the worst cases, I’ll have panic attacks – a stressful negative thought becomes stuck on repeat in my head, and suddenly I’m breathing rapidly, I feel light-headed, slightly nauseous, my body clenches, and I feel like yelling. In the moment, it’s as if I’m somewhere else, no longer occupying my body. In fact, once I’ve relaxed, I sometimes only then realize my clenched fists have crushed whatever was in my hand – the grocery list I was carrying, a pop can... It’s no way to live, and I know that, so I’ve tried a number of things to address the problem through the years. Unfortunately, the usual anxiety supplement suspects, and much of the usual anxiety treatment approaches have failed to solve the problem or stick. Recently however, I started reading up on Zen.
I know, skeptical readers. It sounds a little hokey, but hear me out.
Though, I wouldn’t consider myself a strict adherent to any particular religious belief or spiritual philosophy, the tenets of zen are compatible with any following and I’ve found them to be extremely helpful in clarifying my understanding of the world and life as a whole, and of myself in particular. To be honest, this kind of open sharing of my personal life and struggles, is one of my anxiety triggers, but I’ve found one particular principle of Zen so helpful, I’m here sharing it anyways hoping it will help others as it has me.
There is a Lao Tzu quote which explains the power of this advice with beautiful simplicity “If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”
When you think about it, most of the time when we’re feeling depressed or anxious, that feeling has nothing to do with what’s actually happening with ourselves at that particular moment. We’re letting thoughts of what’s happened in the past pull us down or we’re fretting over what may happen in the future. Considering this, my feeling that when I am in the midst of a panic, I am not really there, makes perfect sense! I’m not. Not fully anyhow.
So, the easiest way I’ve found to relieve myself of anxiety? Leave the place it lives. When I notice myself wandering there, I’ll correct my course. Forward from the past, back away from the future, finding and occupying the present moment once more. Another Zen term – mindfulness – refers to the act of grounding yourself firmly in the moment without judgment. Wikipedia describes it succinctly saying it “…is moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by "acceptance" - attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong.” AND I’ve found there’s a super simple way to get there, anywhere you are, at any time, without regular lotus-positioned chanting and oms.
Free, Natural Anxiety Relief that Actually Works: 5 Senses “Meditation”
I’ll admit it - I’ve read enough on the subject – studies extolling its benefits, books proclaiming its simplicity – to know that I SHOULD meditate, and regularly. However, I, like many people I’ve talked to struggle to know where to start, how to do it (correctly – “Am I doing it right?” “Is this how it should feel?” “It seems like all I’m doing is sitting...”), and to make it a part of my normal routine. Rather than just sitting and trying to free my mind of thoughts, or to just be open to my thoughts, I’ve found a directed meditation approach helpful to keeping me on a good and beneficial track.
When I begin to stress out or even find myself in the midst of a panic, I take mindfulness and the idea of being present quite literally, using all five of my senses to ground myself in that moment’s reality and to truly occupy my body.
- Seeing: “What can I see all around me?” I’ll study my surrounding noting all the tiny details.
- Hearing: “What can I hear?” I’ll listen and attempt to place all the sounds I hear – what’s making the noise? Is it near or far? Right or left?
- Feeling: “What am I feeling?” I’ll note both internal and external sensations – fabric or sun or a breeze on my skin, slight tension in certain muscles maybe.
- Smelling: “What can I smell?” Our sense of smell has a powerful tie to our mind, memory, and mood.
- Tasting: “What do I taste?” Yes, even if you’re not eating or chewing on anything, your mouth still has a residual flavor.
Now, while explaining this very simple anxiety relief method, I want to be clear that my intention is not to dismiss the seriousness or difficulty in managing an anxiety disorder. These are two things I understand very well. And I don’t mean to imply the method here is a “cure” or even easy. Sometimes it’s a real struggle to stay in the present and I need to keep directing and redirecting my thoughts. My point here is simply to share a practice which I have personally found very helpful. While I still struggle with anxiety and likely, always will, zen has allowed me to manage what can be extremely overwhelming in a way that nothing else I’ve tried thus far has. Best of all? None of the nasty side effects my friends taking prescription meds talk about. This is a safe and beneficial practice even for those without anxiety that you can do absolutely anywhere.