Gain Control Over Your Anxiety with This Powerful Observation Practice
For many years I suffered from anxiety. It took the form of intense worry and fear, along with memories of past injustices — none of which were related to my personal situation at the time, or any particular challenge I was confronting.
To make matters worse, in response to this torment, I was often plagued by an internal diatribe, chastising myself for the anxiety I was feeling; a particularly insidious form of self-abuse. This state of emotional distress was a constant companion, until the day I had an experience that would change my life forever.
It was an early Spring day and I was walking in a garden near my home. There was not a cloud in the sky, the sun felt warm on my skin, and the air was filled with a delicious fragrance carried on a gentle breeze. Since this was a time before cell phones, there was nothing to intrude upon my enjoyment of the moment and I was totally immersed in the exquisiteness of the day.
However, at some point, amidst the budding trees, forsythia and the cloudless sky, my lips became dry, my heart was racing, and my gut was in a knot. Suddenly I was in familiar territory, experiencing a particularly intense anxiety attack which took me back to my childhood and a story that terrified me: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl.”
In the story, a poor child sells matches on the street in the freezing winter, but no one is buying them. As she lays alone, dying of the cold and trying to warm herself with the few matches she has for sale, she has a vision of a warm hearth and a loving grandmother, the only one who had cared for her.
I never had to sell matches. I was brought up in a well-to-do family, but the story reflected the emotional reality of my childhood, reliving the certainty that no one would defend me, no one would protect me and no one would ever take my side. I repeated this well-worn tale over and over again — so many times that this particular anxiety attack was totally on auto pilot; a completely absorbing and emotionally compelling narrative.
However, this time there was a difference. Perhaps it was the contrast with the beauty of the day, or just being exhausted by yet another anxiety attack. Rather than pour fuel on the mental fire, I simply “stepped back” and observed my anxiety from afar.
This was not a conscious decision, but rather more like an intervention from a wiser, more intelligent part of myself, and the result was amazing. As I gazed inward with detachment at the emotional upheaval of my anxiety, I remembered something from my college science classes. It is called the “Observer Effect” and in layman’s terms this rule says “the very act of observation changes the thing observed.”
Well, that’s what happened to me on that day. The very act of simply observing my anxiety, without being judgmental or attempting to achieve anything at all, altered the anxiety itself and dissipated it. In addition, it forestalled the internal diatribe that normally accompanied my anxiety attacks. It was as if I had turned the switch off on a radio that was only producing static.
In the months that followed I learned that by employing this “Self-Observation Practice” with discipline, consistency and compassion, I could take control, and over time, turn off the anxiety switch permanently…and you can, too.
No doubt there is a lot to be concerned about in today’s world, including COVID-19, unemployment, paying the mortgage or the rent, the bizarre politics of wearing or not wearing a mask, elderly loved ones in harm’s way, and the continued debate about global warming as well as the inequities that beset our nation and deserve our attention.
If such concerns are accompanied by anxiety as you attempt to deal with life in 2020, chances are you are not coming up with the best solutions to these challenges for yourself or your friends or loved ones.
Anxiety only narrows our gaze and clouds our judgment. It convinces us to arm ourselves with weapons ill equipped for the challenges we actually face; the equivalent of bringing a pen knife to a face off against a machine gun. It is a creature of the past obsessed with the future, and therefore it invariably causes us to neglect the present. Anxiety is an extraordinarily ineffective and debilitating state of mind.
The Self-Observation Practice is a simple and powerful technique to vanquish anxiety. It does not require money, pharmaceuticals, or a retreat from life. When done correctly, it is quite natural and takes little or no emotional energy.
By observing your anxiety, without judgement, without seeking to explain, rationalize or stop it, you will find that it retreats. As anxiety retreats we are freed up to seek the wisdom that dwells inside each of us; wisdom that is enduring and powerful, enabling clarity in decision making and honesty in relationships. We end up on a path to effectively conquer our inner fears, worries and concerns; a worthy achievement. In the words of Lao Tzu, “He who conquers others is strong; He who conquers himself is mighty.”
To short circuit your anxiety you need to be disciplined, consistent, and of course, non-judgmental. You need to recognize that the prospect of overcoming anxiety can actually be terrifying. This fear arises from a part of your being that has a deep interest in things remaining as they are, and it will fight tooth and nail against change. A compassionate non-judgmental approach is needed to defang this fear.
Remember, do not interfere with your anxiety by labeling it, or analyzing it. Detach and observe. Adopt the attitude of a scientist observing an amoeba; do not demand or expect any particular outcome, and keep at it. Your patience will be well rewarded.