I had anxiety all wrong–and maybe you do, too

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I have started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks. For about three weeks, I have had a near constant nervous feeling in my stomach and a tightness in my chest. This constant low-level anxiety spikes a few times a day and becomes a panic attack in which I start hyper-ventilating. Sometimes I burst into tears. As someone who has meditated for decades, I’ve been shocked to find that meditating right now makes things worse, especially at night when I am trying to sleep. Emptying my mind seems to create space for my brain to go directly to my darkest, scariest thoughts, and touching on those thoughts seems to plunge me directly into a feeling of dread and doom.

While meditating isn’t helping, other aspects of my Buddhist practice are helping a bit. Chanting works better than meditating because instead of focusing on clearing my mind, I can focus on the chant. My go-to chant is nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, which is shorthand for the concept of karma. Chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo allows me to focus on the order that does exist in the world. I also know that at the exact moment that I am chanting nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo, someone else somewhere else in the world is, too, so it helps me feel connected rather than disconnected. My late husband used to chant nam-myoho-rhenge-kyo when he felt overwhelmed by the challenges of his stroke, so the chant also makes me feel closer to him.

Another aspect that is helping a bit, which I will talk more about next week, is turning toward my anxiety rather than away. This means rather than trying to avoid anxiety, and push it away when I feel it bubbling up, I try to respond with curiosity and compassion. I actually talk to my anxiety; for example, when I feel it building in my chest, I’ll say, “Oh, hello, anxiety. There you are. I wonder what you are trying to protect me from right now.” It might seem cheesy, but it gives me some distance from it and helps me not identify with it.

I’ve also started reading a book recommended by a friend, Anxiety: The Missing Stage of Grief by Claire Bidwell Smith. As the title makes clear, Smith suggests that anxiety is a typical part of grief. My own grief therapist echoed this, saying many of her clients experience anxiety. In my case, my worsening vision coinciding with the anniversaries of my husband’s stroke and death may have been the perfect storm for anxiety and panic to manifest.

I had it all wrong

This new experience with anxiety is making me understand how ignorant I have been abut anxiety in the past. I have had countless students tell me they have anxiety. My daughter struggled hard with anxiety in high school and continues to be challenged by it. While I am not someone who ever questioned whether anxiety is “real,” I have minimized its impacts. I have misunderstood it as unmanaged stress. I have minimized their experiences as being about lack of good sleep hygiene or stress management skills.

That has led to me making misguided suggestions (unsolicited, too) about strategies to try. Yes, I have been that person who has said, “Have you tried yoga? Or meditation?” Yoga and meditation have helped me with stress throughout my entire adult life, and because I was equating anxiety with unmanaged stress, the suggestion made sense to me. But now that I understand that anxiety is something else altogether, I feel foolish about those suggestions—and I am embarrassed that I broke one of my own rules about not offering unsolicited advice.

If you are one of the people who has born the brunt of my ignorance, I am sorry. I will do better from here on out.  

Now that I understand the distinction and the actual experience of anxiety, I am filled with compassion and admiration for folks who live with it. It’s a reminder to me that if I haven’t experienced something myself, I need to listen, accept how others describe their experience, and ask clarifying questions.

Speak from your experience

Since I’ve been talking about experiencing anxiety and panic, several people have reached out to me to offer strategies and resources that have helped them. What I appreciate about this help is that it is coming from people who have experienced anxiety and/or panic attacks themselves. Right now, I want as many strategies as I can get, so please, keep them coming—as long as you are speaking from personal experience.

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