A tricky thing about anxiety is that once you experience it, you begin to have anxiety about anxiety. I found this happening almost immediately. After my first anxiety and panic attack, I began worrying, “Will it happen again?” Once I began having trouble sleeping because of anxiety, I began dreading bedtime, worrying about anxiety kicking in.
Anxiety and panic thrive on and create fear. The more fear they create, the more they thrive. It’s a self-serving cycle that is hard to break.
This reminds me of a famous quote attributed to the Buddha: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” What we hold onto, we become. Holding onto anger makes us angry and bitter. Holding on to fear about anxiety makes us fearful and anxious. In the case of anger, I have learned through experience that letting go of it enables me to move on and be happy. In the case of grief, I’ve learned to let it pass through me at its own pace. If I try to control that pace by pushing it away and telling it to come back later, it outsmarts me and shows up at the most inopportune time.
A year after my husband died, I am still liberally turning my camera off during remote meetings and crying during face-to-face interactions. When I feel my emotions coming on, I let them come on. That’s the #1 rule of “turning towards.” Turning towards means not allowing the instinctual tightening to happen and to instead relax.
Applying this idea to anxiety means making friends with anxiety. The idea behind befriending or embracing anxiety is that anxiety is a normal response to stressful situations, in my case, the loss of my husband, which stirred up my fears of being alone, of not being enough when he was dying, and of dying myself. Acknowledging my fears and my anxiety about them lessens their grip.
Trying to make friends with my anxiety is somewhat terrifying—it’s like seeing a tiger charging toward me and deciding to hold out my hand to see if it’s friendly. Trying to outrun it is pointless.
This means when I feel anxiety bubbling up inside of me, instead of steeling myself against it, which signals my brain’s fear response to ramp up, I try to think to myself, “Oh, there’s anxiety. I wonder what it wants.” The tiger sniffs my hand, strolls slowly around me, and then sometimes slinks off. Sometimes. Other times, it just keeps strolling around me, slowly, keeping me on edge for a bit. It eventually loses interest.
Making friends is not something that comes naturally to me—I am socially awkward and introverted. I don’t seek out opportunities to make new friends, and I feel similarly about making friends with anxiety: I’d rather not. But anxiety is a tiger that keeps stalking me.
I’ve been listening to guided meditations on the app Insight Timer with names like “Befriending Anxiety” and “Embracing Anxiety.” While traditional Buddhist/Zen meditation, which focuses on clearing the mind, simply makes space for my anxiety to take hold, guided meditation gives my mind a focal point so that space doesn’t get created.
Like everything else hard in life, it is a process and not a linear one. I am getting help along the way with therapy and drugs. The drugs help me relax, which allows me to get enough sleep to function, and to resist that instinctual tightening. I’m taking Escitalopram, an antidepressant that helps with Generalized Anxiety Disorder; Ativan, which I take at night to help me sleep; and hydroxyzine, which helps with acute anxiety during the day. Ideally, I will be able to ease off the medications within a few months, after I’ve made peace with my new pet tiger.