Looking back, I can see that I struggled early on, but I didn’t have a name for what I was experiencing. In my senior year of high school I was a straight “A” student, captain of the soccer team, the lead in the school play, and I was headed for the top-rated liberal arts college in the country. Despite all of this, I felt insecure and anxious much of the time. I was worried that people on the outside would see the me that I saw on the inside.
In my late 20s, after years of self-medicating with alcohol and serial relationships, I was utterly overwhelmed by anxiety. I am talking about the heart-pounding, palm-sweating, body-shaking, curled-up-in-a-fetal-position-on-the-floor type of anxiety. At one point, in the middle of a conversation with my brother, I responded to my discomfort by punching a concrete wall ― it required hours of surgery and two pins to put my hand back together.
Around this time I found a little book by Thich Nhat Hanh, titled The Miracle of Mindfulness. Something about this gentle book spoke to me immediately, and I started a meditation practice. I then discovered John Kabat-Zinn’s work with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where I completed a clinical internship.
Mindfulness practice has transformed my relationship to anxiety. It still shows up, but when it does, I note the location and quality of the sensations and the associated thoughts. Next, I take a breath, smile with recognition of a familiar companion, stand or sit up a bit taller, relax my belly, drop my shoulders, and internally say thank you. Anxiety serves as a cue to reconnect with the miracle of existence. It is not an exaggeration to say that I am genuinely grateful for the role anxiety now plays in my life.
Why be grateful for anxiety?
It cannot be easily ignored. Anxiety is so visceral that it cannot be overlooked - this makes it a great signpost for returning to the present. While I do not know how much time I have left to live, I do have this moment to practice being present, positive, and purposeful. Anxiety can serve as a reminder to focus on what is most important.
It fosters acceptance. Sometimes the thoughts and sensations of anxiety just show up and no amount of wishing for it to be otherwise changes that. The part of the human brain that creates the experience of anxiety is the same part that is engaged when we resist it. Fighting anxiety is like trying to dampen a fire by throwing wood on it. On the other hand, acceptance of anxiety activates a very different part of the brain and takes resource away from the areas that generate it. Acceptance creates the space necessary to take useful action in the presence of anxiety.
It is a source of humility. Each time I begin to think I have mastered life and transcended all pettiness, anxiety shows up and reminds me that I am just as human as everyone else. Anxiety helps me see that I have no control over what shows up ― I can only choose what I practice in response.
It is an opportunity for growth. Responding effectively to anxiety rather than allowing it to run my life has empowered me to take on challenges that were previously unthinkable. In reality, I am free to do anything that is physically possible - even when the thoughts of anxiety tell me otherwise. Neuroscience has shown that what we do repeatedly shapes the connections in our brains. At any moment I am either practicing what I want more of in my life, or I am practicing something else.
It can be a source of compassion. Working consciously with my own anxiety has opened my eyes to how prevalent it is in our society. In every corner of modern life there is evidence of anxiety related to status, performance, and social acceptance ― there is a pervasive concern about not being quite good enough. Working mindfully with the thoughts and sensations of anxiety creates some insight into how empty these concerns really are. It really is possible to find freedom right in the midst of anxiety.
Gratitude is a powerful internal resource. Being grateful for anxiety will not necessarily get rid of anxiety, but a friend of mine once said “gratitude is a bulky emotion ― it doesn’t leave room for much else.”
Let me be clear ― I am not suggesting that I would eagerly raise my hand to have anxiety be a part of my life. And I am not suggesting that there is anything remotely comfortable about it. But, after studying well-being for more than twenty-five years, I have come to the conclusion that comfort is not the final measure of life quality. A day spent learning, contributing, loving, and growing is a really great day ― even when it contains some anxiety. Sometimes working with anxiety happens with relative ease, and sometimes it comes with sweaty palms - such is life. Anxiety can remind us to orient our attention to what matters most and to practice what we want to have more of in our lives.