Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Mary Jaksch of Goodlife Zen and I read it first on Zenhabits
Are you anxious at times? I am. Let’s face it, there’s plenty of anxiety to go around: lay-offs, relationship crises, pandemics, violence – and that’s just for starters.
Actually, anxiety is a natural alarm system that keeps us safe and productive. But it can become a chronic mindset. When that happens, it can deaden joy and stifle creativity.
How to tackle anxiety
In my life it’s not so much the big-ticket items like the current influenza or the economic meltdown that make me anxious, it’s the fact that I tend to over-commit myself. The result is that I’m always a bit behind schedule. Anyone else feel like that?
One way to deal with overload is to pare down commitments, as Leo Babauta describes in his beautiful post, How to be less busy in a busy, busy world. Another way is to change our ingrained thought patterns and emotional responses.
Luckily there are some wonderful techniques that can help us to stay relaxed, focused, grounded, and cheerful – even under pressure. After all, anxiety is not produced by something external. It’s an internal response to stress. We can train the mind to respond in a more skillful way.
I want to share with you how I stay reasonably sane, grounded, and creative in the midst of a full life. But first let’s take a closer look at anxiety.
Fight-flight-freeze: three responses to anxiety
Anxiety is a low-grade fear. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of one’s anxiety. That’s because anxiety is pervasive, whereas fear has a clear target.
We are hardwired to respond in three different ways when faced with danger: fight, flight, or freeze.
Imagine that you are hiking in a National Park. Suddenly you spot a bear. Faced with immediate danger, you instinctively choose one of three options: you either try to scare off the bear by making yourself look big, or by shouting (that’s the ‘fight’ response). Or you immediately turn and run to safety (that’s the flight response). Or you stand very still in the hope that the bear won’t notice you (that’s the ‘freeze’ response).
Let’s look at how these responses play out in everyday life:
1. Fight: When we’re anxious, we tend to be irritable. This is the ‘fight’ response. Because anxiety is pervasive and doesn’t have a clear target, we tend to snap at those around us.
2. Flight: Sometimes we try to avoid what makes us anxious. People who suffer from severe anxiety even avoid stepping outside their home.
3. Freeze: The freeze response produces procrastination and stage fright. I certainly know about these two. You too?
Note that I’m talking about ordinary anxiety, and not about anxiety disorders. If you suffer from panic attacks or phobias, read this useful article, or get professional help.
Anxiety is an emotion that sends our mind into the future. After all, nobody is anxious about the past, right? As human beings we tend to think in stories that are like mind-movies. Anxious mind-movies usually have a ‘what if?’ scenario.
So what winds us up into anxiety are particular thought patterns and stories. Take a look at the following list and see if any points seem familiar:
1. Self-doubts: Do you doubt your ability? Do you think you haven’t got what it takes, in order to succeed?
2. Wanting Control of the future: Do you want to want to control what happens in future? The truth is that even if we lay great plans, the unexpected can happen. And life has inescapable tides: we age and finally die.
3. High self-expectations: Sometimes we become our own slave-driver. I must admit, that’s definitely a weakness of mine. It’s good to step back at times and check out whether our expectations are realistic – and kindly.
4. Fear of failure: Are you afraid to fail? The truth is that all learning entails failure. Prof. Tal Ben-Shahar, an exponent of the Positive Psychology movement says, “Learn to fail, or fail to learn.”
5. Not being present: This is a key factor of anxiety. When our thoughts dwell on the future, and we stop being truly present, that’s when we can become anxious.
As you can see in the list above, all these internal factors are mental habits that we can change in order to alleviate and transform anxiety. And it’s the last one – being present – that’s the key to inspiration.
Inspiration lives in the present
There is an amazing short video with Brother David Steindle-Rast – a Christian monk. As a boy, he experienced the last years of World War II in Germany. He tells of great hardships: never knowing where the next meal would come from, having to queue for hours for a small pitcher of water, and seeing bombs fall all around him.
Would you be anxious in a situation like this?
Surprisingly, Brother David wasn’t anxious – his experience was completely the opposite: it was one of the happiest times in his life! How could that be? His explanation is quite simple. Because there seemed no possibility of survival and no hope for the future, all he could do was to be in the present moment. This created a deep sense of happiness – in the midst of all that suffering.
Moments of inspiration – like watching the video of Brother David – remind us of our life purpose. We feel uplifted, excited, and yet grounded. I think the reason why moments of inspiration touch us so keenly, is because they remind us of our deepest aspirations.
Sometimes we confuse aspirations with personal goals, but they are completely different. Aspirations are the answer to the question: “What do I want to give the world?” Whereas personal goals are the answer to the question, “What do I want the world to give me?”
Four ways to transform anxiety into inspiration
Here are four ways you can start to transform anxiety into inspiration:
1. Simplify your life: The best guide I have seen so far, is Leo Babauta’s lovely new ebook The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life. He takes you right through the necessary steps to simplify your life. It doesn’t happen overnight, but can definitely decrease anxiety in the long run.
2. Write everything down: Holding too many ideas and plans in one’s head can cause anxiety. A very simple remedy is to record all your ideas, dates, and schedules so that you free up your memory. Buy a simple notebook that you carry with you, or invest in a smart phone that can store appointments and idea.
3. Learn to relax: The anxious body is tense and needs rest and relaxation. There is a good relaxation and sleep hypnosis recording, created by Jon Rhodes. It’s free and you can find it here
4. Practice meditation: If you really want to change the mental habits that keep you ensnared in anxiety, you’ll find meditation a real help.
I know it can be daunting to learn to meditate. And busy people sometimes find it difficult to set time aside to practice meditation. I’ve come up with an easy way to get into meditation. I call it the Three-Breaths meditation. You can do it in one minute or less. It’s a natural way to meditate and doesn’t require you to learn complicated techniques. I’ve created a short video on how to do it. You can watch it here.
The Three-Breaths Meditation entails taking a few moments each day in order to pay tender regard to three breaths as they flow in and out of your body. For best results, keep upright posture so that your body and mind are well balanced. A thoughts come and go, observe them with soft attention and bring your focus gently back to your breath. I suggest practicing this easy micro-meditation a few times during the day. You’ll notice that it brings you right back home to the present moment.
Of course there’s a lot to be said about turning anxiety into inspiration – that’s why I run a Virtual Zen Retreat focused on how to do it. But I hope that you can find something in this post that helps you to start moving away anxiety and towards inspiration.
Learning to guide our mind away from unskillful emotions, like anxiety, fear or anger, and towards kindness and cheerfulness, is a wonderful way to enhance our life and bring about happiness.
If there’s one thing you take away from this post, I hope it’s that ease and inspiration come from experiencing the present moment.