These are anxious times that we live in -- it's estimated that 18 percent of U.S. adults have an anxiety disorder and, of course, 100 percent of U.S. adults experience anxiety in their lives, because it is part of the human condition. If you have an anxiety disorder, by which I mean anxiety that interferes with your ability to live a normal life, you should get help -- this is a highly treatable problem. That said, what I really want to talk about is the regular, run-of-the-mill anxiety that affects all of us. I'm referring to the range of feelings -- including rapid pulse, shallow breathing, sweating and the other symptoms that indicate you are feeling nervous about something or other. I think it's important to pay attention to these feelings because doing so can help you move your life along in directions that will make it more fulfilling, rewarding and happier overall.
The symptoms of anxiety are not pleasant, but in order to make them useful to your life you need to learn to be present with them. When you find yourself feeling anxiety, notice yourself talking fast or find that you're sweating or that you're having trouble focusing, it's important to stop for a moment... ask yourself what's going on that you're feeling this way... and make a decision about what you are going to do about it. You want to be able to be present for your anxiety, to sit with it and determine whether it can be productive for you.
Anxiety is not something we want to eliminate from our lives altogether because if we aren't willing to tolerate some anxiety we won't be motivated do much at all. One of my favorite sayings, from Gandhi, is that, "We are the center of a circle, the circumference of which is determined by our own self-imposed limitations." We feel anxiety when we push up against our limitations, when we push ourselves further and further as we attempt to create the life we really want to have.
For example, the first time I ever had to stand up in front of a group and give a talk I felt almost unbearably anxious -- but I made myself continue. My goal in life was not only to become a physician (which I am) but to become a teacher and a leader in my chosen specialty, which is addiction treatment. I have big hopes and dreams and new ideas -- sharing them requires that I be able to speak to large groups, which I now do all the time. I still feel nervous butterflies before I speak, my body produces anxiety symptoms -- but I have learned that I can ride the wave and stay with it. Within 30 seconds or a minute, they vanish and I'm fine. In fact, I now am able to use all of that to my advantage, as a way to get pumped before I give a talk.
Stop Anxiety in Its Tracks
When you find yourself feeling anxious, I suggest you try a meditative technique that I teach that is based on the very simple premise that you cannot listen and think at the same time. When you notice that your mind is racing, stop and listen to something - it doesn't matter what, it can be the hum of a fan or the air conditioner, the sound of birds if you're outside, or the buzz of a crowd of people. Just listen to the sounds for five or 10 seconds and you will find that your mind clears. Then you can figure out what it is that is making you nervous and what you need to do about it.
Generalized anxiety (out-of-control worrying) that's pervasive in daily life can consistently interfere with our ability to do what we need to do day in and day out. Sometimes when I am trying to understand something more fully I will look up the derivation of the word -- and in this case, the word "worry" is derived from an old, high German word, "worgen." Worgen is a verb that means "to strangle." Think about that for a minute: Worry that is over-the-top strangles you and keeps you from being who you are and living the life you want to have. If something in your life is causing so much worry that you can't focus, it's important to understand why -- and figure out what you might be able to change.
It's true that there are times we experience worry that we can't get away from -- for instance, if you or a person you care about is facing a scary medical situation. When that happens it is important to take good care of yourself, using relaxation techniques to help you stay as calm as possible and avoiding caffeine and other substances (like alcohol) that make you feel worse. If the worry is chronic and optional (like financial problems because you are living a life you can't actually afford) then it can and should be a signal that you need to make changes that will result in less worrying. If the worry is related to something you are trying to accomplish, then merely recognizing that and allowing yourself the feeling and trusting that you'll move past it can be immensely productive.
Remember, anxiety is a normal part of life. Our inner GPS uses it to "feel its way" and guides us through our days and nights. Learn to understand it rather than avoid it. Seen through this light, anxiety can be a positive force in life.
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