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Anxiety — “What you resist persists”

June 22, 2009

I’m working on a special series of meditations, “exercises” really, for anxiety. I’m editing one right now using deep breathing. In it, the first thing I suggest is bringing attention to the anxiety. This is quite the opposite of the usual tendency to want to run away from it. Anxiety builds in a kind of vicious cycle. Anxiety is an expression of fear, and part of what creates it is the fear of the anxiety itself. We resist the anxiety, try to run away from it, and that resistance does indeed cause it to persist.

Anxiety, like any other feeling state, comes and goes. Feelings come and go like the weather, but when we get involved in them either through resisting them or ruminating about them, they tend to be prolonged. Let go of the resistance, and the feelings can “pass through”.

This is only one small piece of the approach I am using for anxiety, but it is an important one. I’ll write more when I’ve finished my Anxiety Solutions project.

June 2010 Update — It’s almost exactly a year since I wrote this post and we’ve just finished our anxiety program. What was going to be a series of meditations evolved into a program with meditations, suggested daily exercises and journaling. You can read about it here.

Comments

25 Responses to “Anxiety — “What you resist persists””

  1. karthik on June 22nd, 2009 11:55 pm

    Sounds great, Mary. Your approach to anxiety totally makes sense. Anxiety arises when one is not being comfortable in the present, or rather when one is not in the present. This non-judgmental observation is also the basis for mindfulness meditation that I practice.
    I can tell you that it has helped me overcome panic attacks, that I had for a week, two years back when I was really worried. My motto during that time was acceptance. Accept the situation as it is. Just accept it. I also relaxed quite a bit during that phase.
    It worked, I got out of the vicious cycle you talk about. The only trigger for a panic attack is worry. If you worry that you will get a panic attack, that will trigger it!

    Cheers,
    Karthik

  2. Karen Lee on June 23rd, 2009 6:35 am

    Mary,

    I’m so happy to hear you are doing this. Anxiety is something I identified as a long-time issue for me about two years ago, and I’ve been working with a number of methods, including meditation, exercise, cleaning up my diet, and changing my work situation to help ease it. All these things have helped a great deal, and I’m much happier than I was a year ago when I hit “rock bottom,” but like anything that has been ingrained since childhood, it’s a hard habit to break.

    I’m grateful for all your work and look forward to reading more.

    Best,
    Karen

  3. Mary on June 23rd, 2009 9:54 am

    Thanks for weighing in, karthik and Karen.

    karthik: Acceptance is so powerful, as you demonstrate.
    I’m not sure, thought, that worry creates the panic attack. It’s like the chicken and egg riddle. It seems to me the fear can come up first and then propel us into worry. The worry, then, can help keep it going or amplify it, but I think fear/anxiety can come up from a change in body chemistry, something triggering an unconscious memory, and from stresses in life. Interesting to explore this some more!

    Karen: Good to hear from you and your experience with anxiety. It’s something so many of us experience in these stressful lives! I’ve had some other responses from people which encourages me to continue with this project and bring it to completion — hopefully soon!

  4. Judy on June 23rd, 2009 8:38 pm

    This sounds like a really creative project with some fresh ideas on the subject of anxiety. I am looking forward to hearing your new project.

  5. karthik on June 23rd, 2009 11:48 pm

    Mary, you have a great point and I think you are right.

    Worry: to torment oneself with or suffer from disturbing thoughts; fret.

    Fear: a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid.

    I think the root of worry is fear, since disturbing thoughts all have their root in fear.
    And I guess fear only arises with regard to the future, not to the past, not to the present. It’s always, ‘oh I sure hope it doesn’t happen that way in the future’.
    I guess another way to describe worry is: A state of repetitive fearing!
    For a panic attack to happen, one needs highly repetitive fearing or amplified worrying, but panic attack as you say has its roots in fear.

  6. Mary on June 24th, 2009 9:58 am

    Judy — thanks for the encouragement!

    karthik — Great analysis. Thanks for your ongoing contribution!

  7. Miao on June 26th, 2009 6:20 pm

    I look forward to your new meditations. Your meditations have supported to me for several years – and my thanks to you are long overdue.

    Panic overwhelms me at the strangest moments – often late at night and when I think everything is under control. My usual reaction is to make a list of everything my irrational brain is telling me “must” be done ASAP.

    The deep recesses of my rational brain tells me this is ridiculous – there not that many hours available nor are the items on the list the real reason for my panic. Groundlessly, I fear something that is ahead of me: a potential confrontation, someone else’s crazy demands, … Whatever it is has driven me to panic.

    Usually by morning I can look at what ‘had to be done now’… and drop the list in the trash. Wastes paper, but it lets me sleep.

    Why can’t I just accept and RELEASE?!? Until I can, I advise others to buy stock in steno pads.

  8. Mary on June 27th, 2009 9:41 am

    :-) Miao — hey, there’s a slogan for steno pads — “write away your anxiety with steno pads!” It does sound like making the list is helping, at least somewhat…

    You are welcome, and thank you for taking the time to comment. What you describe must be familiar to many people. The “deep recesses of (your) rational brain” can say one thing, but when the panic is there it is the same energy of fear that gets you to run away from danger — fast! Since there isn’t any real danger, your mind comes up with scenarios in a frantic attempt to identify the threat and ward it off. Part of what I am working on is gaining a perspective on this and exercises to develop a habit of recognizing what is going on and learning to reassure oneself. The goal is to not only understand intellectually that what one is thinking about is not the real reason for the panic, but to also get that emotionally.

    I’ve been hearing from so many people on this, it’s inspiring me to focus on getting this project done!

  9. Sandy on June 30th, 2009 12:54 pm

    Mary,
    I’m glad to hear you are working on some exercises to relieve anxiety. I have dealt with anxiety / panic attacks for several years. At one time I was on an antidepressant and in fact, I am waiting on a call now from my doctor to talk to her about getting back on. It’s something I’ve resisted for the last 2 years or so but just feel like I’m up against a brick wall and there’s no relief unless I get back on the medication. Any comments or suggestions that you or anyone else has would be appreciated! Keep up the good work, I love your meditations. I have not listened in a while and I need to take the time out to actually “do” the meditations. Perhaps that is one of the things that is wrong, I don’t take the time to just “relax”!

  10. Mary on July 1st, 2009 9:50 am

    Sandy,
    There are lots of things we can do to improve mood and decrease anxiety. Certainly meditation can help, but as you say the key is to do it! Try listening to a meditation at least once a day. The value isn’t just in the immediate effect you receive (such as relaxation), but regular meditation also helps to develop new habits. You may very well find that you are more aware when stress is starting to build and automatically breath more or let go of tension throughout the day.

    Repeated use of the anxiety exercises I’m now working on will be important to get the most results.

  11. patti on July 2nd, 2009 5:24 am

    ahhhhh anxiety.
    without a bit of anxiety, i hardly know i’m alive!
    j/k!

    i’ve found that regular meditation helps to lower my anxiety levels all round.
    i’m a list-writer too…..when it all seems toooooo much, getting it out of my head and down on paper in black and white is very liberating.
    i also believe in the ten-minutes-and-a-cup-of-tea-and-then-we-reassess approach.
    a cup of tea and some permission to just sit and rest for a few minutes, can really help put things back into perspective.

    generally, (for myself) anxiety arises when i’ve over-committed myself, or i’ve fallen behind with stuff and suddenly, everywhere i look is pressure pressure pressure.
    so, part of the deal (for me) has to be about simplifying my life and keeping things pretty basic.

    i think there is a lot of exciting stuff to do and see and be in the world today and we can possibly suffer from having too many options and too many choices.
    eventually, it is peaceful to realise that it is not necessary to do/be/have it all.

  12. Chris on July 2nd, 2009 6:31 am

    I have found that behind anxiety is fear, and behind fear is pain. I experience this pain in my 6th chakra. It actually feels like a big ball of knotted energy.

    I believe my pain has to do with a core belief I learned (previous life or early life) that I am not good enough. And it seems my early life only reinforced it through the experiences of most of my young life until I broke down – so to speak – and turned to meditation. Years later, any many layers later, I found it – just there, just pain. And to my surprise, it has been there my whole life. I feel like my personality (my life!) was largely based on controlling this pain.

    My ego is quick to help me forget the issue is pain and not a woman, or job, or money or my noisy neighbor. As I have said before, Mary, there is something about your meditations that quickly calm me down. When I am calm, I can center on this pain, just be with it and not control it, and allow it to be, heal, and speaks its message. I do feel it is trying to tell my something – something I need to learn.

  13. Mary on July 2nd, 2009 8:55 am

    patti — yes, definitely — the cup of tea meditation — really works. Sometimes I just imagine myself with a cup of tea beside me at my desk and it shifts my psychology! I can really related to the too many choices phenomenon. You said it so beautifully — we don’t have to do/be/have it all.

    Chris — when I read your second paragraph, you seemed to be describing part of my journey to a tee. I feel meeting the pain is essential to being truly alive, true to oneself and ultimately coming to feel “good enough”. It seems like it is necessary in order to arrive at the point patti is talking about — not having to do/be/have it all — or do/be/have anything for that matter! It’s wonderful to hear from someone going as deeply into the heart of things as you are. Thank you.

  14. patti on July 2nd, 2009 10:41 pm

    chris you are so right!
    “behind anxiety is fear, and behind fear is pain.”
    i know that any anxiety i experience comes from a fear-place. (and i’m not really all that anxious a person; i just get a little worked up from time to time. i’m lucky in that i have a very slow-pulsed, even-keeled, super-relaxed husband to inspire me).

    i’ve also heard that fear is the absence of love.
    absence of love sounds a lot like pain to me…..especially when you mention a learned core belief of “not being good enough”.
    not being good enough sounds horribly painful and definitely like an absence of love…..many kinds of love at that.
    and something that lots of us can consider and work on.

    your mention of “many layers” speaks to me. it seems that we will never really get “there”….just that our layers become ever subtler and diffuse. i guess that’s life.

    mary, o yes, once i “knew”, viscerally, that i only really had to choose a few key things for my life….things immediately became a lot simpler.
    now that i see it, i’d love for everyone to see that life needn’t be quite the rat-race that many of us manage to create for ourselves.

  15. Chris on July 3rd, 2009 7:41 am

    If I could have avoided going deep, I would have, but my Soul – in a way – demanded it. Or better put: It keeps pressing “me” in its ‘still small voice’ to answer 3 questions: who am I? where am I going? why am I here?

    I am still searching for those answers, and your ‘oasis’ is helping, especially with what may be the pain of existence. (Or maybe it is a psychic wound inflicted by a loving source so that I would take the time, this time around, to understand my true nature.)

    Either way, a BIG THANKS to you and Richard. (the music is great!) You are the cool waters for a burning soul.

  16. Mary on July 3rd, 2009 8:48 am

    patti and Chris, your comments and observations are so like my own soul speaking.

    Chris, you are welcome. Thank you for being on this journey with us. What have you found so far in answer to those 3 questions?

  17. chris on July 6th, 2009 8:32 am

    Patti, you are right, I do believe fear is the absence of Love. (I am going to say hello on your website) And the next part ties into Mary’s questions about my questions.

    Mary, I feel like I am daily evolving, so today’s answers could change tomorrow. For now…..

    1) Who am I? (and this I finally felt after your guided meditations) I feel like I am a divine spark, timeless. And sometimes this really scares me!

    2) Where am I going? I think I am here to write three screenplays about the context of our story. I did not know (or was even taught) what I said above – a divine spark, timeless. Of course, not directly, but through the power of story. And sometimes this really scares me!

    3) Why am I here? To teach, give, and share. My archetype Tarot card is the Teacher. But not directly tell. Show, don’t tell. Again – I think, more often feel, this may be so. And sometimes…… :)

  18. Mary on July 6th, 2009 9:26 am

    I understand, Chris, about the daily evolving and changing answers. One thing I love about blogging and the interactivity that’s evolved in the internet is that there is more of a sense of “this is how it looks in this moment” as opposed to “this is how it is, this is what I feel and believe”. It’s made it easier for me to do all of this, knowing it doesn’t have to be the “final answer”, rather an ongoing exploration. And it’s an exploration that we all are involved in together.

    “Show, don’t tell” — I love that. I think it happens automatically. You are naturally a teacher, Chris!

  19. patti on July 6th, 2009 3:23 pm

    who am i? where am i going? why am i here?
    if i spend too much time thinking about those questions, my brains will melt!

    it is a subtle irony, is it not, that as humans we have the capacity to ask these questions and much less capacity to answer them.
    i should say, we have the capacity, but we have to work much much harder on the answers!

  20. Chris on July 8th, 2009 6:56 am

    Thank you, Mary! What I always find fascinating is how everything is evolving, and according to some, except spirit-God-Universe. I believe everything, since it is One, is evolving. Once we find an answer, it naturally leads to a new question.

    Patti – my brain is melting! (like the witch in Oz). Yes, it is ironic that we both can ask and answer questions with the latter being most difficult. How this world was put together is rather odd. It takes years to grow a life and only a moment to lose it.

  21. Margo on November 30th, 2009 10:25 am

    Hello,

    I’ve rediscovered your treasure trove of meditation podcasts and I’m truly delighted. I hit a rough patch recently and have been on the vicious anxiety/panic merry go round. The only way to break the cycle is to destress the body, which is in a tense, hypervigilant state. Also, to “accept” and “pass through” the uncomfortable feelings instead or running or to fight them off. Running or fighting only prolongs and enhances the experience.

    The other thought to the anxiety/panic monster is that my body and mind are screaming out for attention. It’s not the most comfortable feeling, but the body and mind requires immediate attention.

  22. Mary on November 30th, 2009 10:38 am

    Welcome back, Margo! Yes, accepting the uncomfortable feelings is key. I’ve been working on a program for anxiety relief and that is one element of it.

    I’m intrigued by your observation that the body and mind are screaming for attention. I never really thought of it that way, and it’s a useful way of looking at it. Thanks for commenting!

  23. Stephanie on January 22nd, 2010 10:56 am

    Hi Mary,

    I recently discovered your website and podcasts and think they are just wonderful. Thank you so much for your meditations.

    I was wondering when this special project on anxiety would be finished and if it would be posted on this site or available somewhere else.

    Stephanie

  24. Mary on January 22nd, 2010 4:41 pm

    You are welcome, Stephanie. It will be some time until the anxiety project is finished. The earliest would be a month from now. It will definitely be announced on this site when it is available. I’m not sure what form it will take yet – a program that you use on the website, an album or an iPhone app. Hopefully we’ll create it for a variety of formats.

  25. Andi on December 4th, 2010 7:40 pm

    I took your online Mediation Course after a friend told me about your website. My goal for practicing meditation was to help ease my general and social anxiety. I noticed benefits from my meditation practice two weeks into the course. However, yesterday I had a major “break through”. I was in a business setting that required that I give a brief introduction of myself to a small group of strangers. I always get butterflies, shaky, and blush when I’m in this type of situation, even when it’s with people I already know! Well, I started doing some deep breathing before my turn to speak; it has never helped very much in the past but I do it anyway. To my shock, after about five or so deep breaths while recalling your meditation music in my mind, my butterflies literally stopped. This has never happened to me before! I was so relieved that by the time my turn came to speak, I didn’t have butterflies, didn’t blush, and my hands were not shaking. My immediate thought was that it was due to my consistent practice with your various mediations. Thank you so much for putting these meditations out for everyone to benefit from. I come to the site regularly to do one of the podcasts and look forward to trying new ones as you develop them.

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